Philly Gets Decriminalization Right


As recently reported, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter will sign a compromise measure to decriminalize personal possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana, with the penalty dropping from possible jail time to a $25 fine. Philadelphia got it right in two major ways.

  • People will disagree about the private, adult, recreational use of intoxicants. Debate about healthy living is fine, but differences in private adult lifestyle choices are no reason to call the police. That kind of personal value enforcement is a waste of precious civic resources.
  • The school-to-prison pipeline has already ruined millions of lives. The first arrest is often for possession of a small amount of marijuana. That arrest can become disabling when it comes to school, student loans and entire areas of employment, leaving few good options and the risk of repeated prison stints. The waste of human life, especially for young men of color, is horrifying. Decriminalization can protect thousands from the vicious cycle of incarceration.

Decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana may not be everything advocates of legalization would like to see. However, it is a giant step forward for folks who go to work, raise families, would rather that their kids did not have to walk past the rowdy guys on the corner, but also worry about their young sons being hassled by the police. It offers a chance to focus on the important issues where government can make a difference in public schools, jobs and transportation.


Arrests Waste Public Resources

Since the measure was introduced by Councilman Jim Kenney in May, much of the debate has been about whether arrests for small amounts of marijuana are worth the law enforcement resources they consume. Estimates are that these arrests cost the city as much as $4 million a year. Some speculate, however, that police may continue to make arrests even though the city has no intention of prosecuting, in apparent abuse of law enforcement discretion.

It is worth noting that the old “broken-windows” theory that serious crime can be reduced by cracking down on lesser crimes such as graffiti, vandalism and pot possession, seems to have quietly disappeared. That approach, once the hallmark of Rudy Giuliani, seems to have been discredited in the face of statistics about racial disparity in arrests in cities such as Philadelphia and D.C.


Shutting Down the Prison Pipeline

The prison population has exploded in the last forty years, increasing by more than 700 percent between 1970 and 2005. For many young Black and Latino men, a low-level marijuana possession arrest is the first brush with the justice system. One in three black men can expect to go to prison at some point in his lifetime.  Councilman Kenney estimates that decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana will keep more than 4,000 people from being arrested each year. Any chance to interrupt the school-to-prison cycle for this many young people seems worth taking.

Big city mayors, like Mayor Michael Nutter, are a unique and important part of the American political landscape because, like governors, they actually have to run something. Mayor Nutter’s response to demands for decriminalization, even his initial reluctance to embrace this measure, was pitch perfect because it put priorities in the right place. When interviewed in June of this year, his response was to focus on safe neighborhoods and getting “knuckleheads” off the corner. He relented, at least in part, to stop knuckleheaded law enforcement.

It will be news the day that decriminalization is not news. With priorities in the right place, that could also be the day when cities such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. are known for safe neighborhoods, great public transportation and stellar public schools. Decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana starts to focus civic attention away from individual private behavior and toward the government’s own legitimate public responsibilities.

Anne Wallace is a New York lawyer who writes extensively on legal and business issues. She also teaches law and business writing at the college and professional level. Anne graduated from Fordham Law School and Wellesley College.

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