Council Considers a Fine, Not Arrest for Pot

If a Philadelphia councilman gets his way, smoking a joint will cost you cash, but won’t land you in handcuffs.

A hearing took place on Monday in Philadelphia City Council where advocates spoke about Councilman Jim Kenney's proposed bill that changes city laws about marijuana so that anyone possessing a small amount wouldn't be placed under arrest.

"An arrest is a very traumatic experience for people, especially if it's the first time and you're a kid," Kenney told "There's a lot of interactions that go wrong with an arrest -- the person could get hurt, the officer could get hurt."

According to Kenney’s office, the proposal calls for police to not arrest anyone caught with one ounce (30 grams) or less of marijuana. Instead, the drug user would pay a $200 fine and have to attend a three-hour drug-abuse seminar.

After completing the seminar and paying the fine, the marijuana user would have the incident removed from his or her record.

On Monday, a slew of advocates testified in council chambers including representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), The Pennsylvania chapter of NORML and Temple University students looking for sensible drug policy, according to Kenney's office.

The issue of what to do about people possessing small amounts of weed has been a hot topic for some time.

"The D.A. is diverting them anyway so why are we locking them up?" asked Kenney.

Back in 2010, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said that his office would start sending anyone caught with 1 ounce or less of weed to a lower court where they could pay a fine rather than face jail time.

"That practice gave me the impetus to go forward and say, 'well if we're not going to prosecute and these folks are going to go to a diversionary program anyway why are we wasting our time arresting them?'" asked Kenney.

Kenney says the new law would help cut down on about 17,000 hours spent yearly by Philadelphia Police on marijuana arrests that often don’t result in prosecution.

"Those officers could be doing more important things than locking up a kid who's got two joints in his pocket," Kenney said. "Police officers on their shift can stay on their shift to combat more serious crime."

Kenney said the police time it takes to book minor drug offenders and hold them in cells costs about $3 million annually.

There is no age limit to the measure and it would cover people caught smoking and/or possessing.

Kenney pointed out that stop-and-frisk being is responsible for the drug arrests of many young people especially African-Americans who made up 89 percent of marijuana possession arrests in the city in 2012.

"I'm sure white kids are smoking as much reefer as anybody else but it seems (Blacks) are the ones getting pinched," Kenney said.

Kenney said the current system where it could take up to a year for a minor weed arrest to clear the system also causes problems because it forces job seekers to disclose an arrest. Kenney's proposal would shorten the length of time to clear one's record.

Kenney said the measure is in no way revolutionary and would be similar to measures in other major cities and even suburban counties.

Just last week, Washington D.C. Council voted to decriminalize small amounts of pot.

The bill will go the mayor's desk for final approval.

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