Philadelphia’s Top Cop: We’ll Ignore Decriminalization
We all know marijuana prohibition is wrong. When we point out the absurdity and cruelty of caging people over a flower, cops will often reply, “We don’t make the laws; we just enforce them.”
Then you’ll see those same cops in uniform at your Statehouse, testifying against a medical marijuana bill. “We don’t make the laws; we just oppose the ones we don’t like.”
Now we get the case of a major American city calling for marijuana decriminalization. In response, the cops are essentially saying, “If you make laws we don’t like, we’ll just ignore them.”
The Philadelphia City Council just voted 13-3 to end the criminalization of an ounce or less of marijuana. The mayor hasn’t signed it yet, but that’s irrelevant as it only takes 12 votes to override the mayor’s veto. It is clear the leadership of the city overwhelmingly believes that the punishment for marijuana possession should only be a civil fine of $25.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said Friday, “I am not in favor at all of any form of [marijuana] legalization.” So Ramsey’s police will just ignore the decriminalization. “We still have to treat [marijuana possession] as a misdemeanor until we are told otherwise by state law. … State law trumps city ordinances.”
The senior attorney for the city, Martha Johnston, seems to think the police commissioner is wrong. In a memo addressing the conflict between city and state law, she wrote “the balance of factors weighs in favor of a conclusion that [the bill] is not pre-empted by the state Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act.”
The councilman who sponsored the decriminalization, James Kenney, pointed out that other jurisdictions in Pennsylvania have used discretion in not arresting people for small amounts of marijuana and received no interference from the state.
“There’s 4,200 [marijuana possession] arrests in the last two years. Eighty-three percent of them were African-American. That’s a pretty stark disparity,” Kenney told WHYY public TV. “I don’t want to go to federal court, but we’ll go. I’m not going to allow kids’ lives to change radically for the worse because the [police and Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration] are too stubborn to do what we’re asking them to do.”
Under current law, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. Despite those 4,200 arrests and estimates that every arrest takes at least 2.5 hours of police time, Ramsey says decriminalization “is not really a time-saver at all,” because cops still have to process the marijuana. “If you recover [marijuana],” Ramsey said, “what is the officer going to do with it?”
(Go ahead and use our comments section below to make suggestions for what Commissioner Ramsey ought to do with recovered marijuana under decriminalization. Live at 3:30pm Pacific on The Russ Belville Show this Tuesday, June 24th, I’ll share your best suggestions on this story with special guests Philly NORML’s Derek Rosenzweig and Chris Goldstein, the man serving federal probation for smoking a joint at the Liberty Bell.)