On a clear morning last October, Mike Whiter woke up, rolled a joint, and took the Broad Street Line from South Philly to City Hall. Standing in the building’s airy courtyard, he lit up and took a few puffs – and promptly was handed a ticket.
It was the first citation, and a ceremonial kick-off of sorts, after the city decriminalized possession and use of small amounts of marijuana. In the year since the law took effect, arrests have fallen nearly 75 percent.
But the police aren’t making up for the drop by doling out tickets. Arrests and citations combined are still 42 percent below the total arrests made by the department in the same time last year, which some say signals a waning interest from the police in penalizing use of the drug.
“Since I got my ticket, I have not received a ticket,” said Whiter, 39, an Iraq War veteran who was medically discharged, uses cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, and said he smokes daily, often outside. “And I haven’t seen anyone else receive a ticket.”
The law – which made possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana punishable by a $25 fine, and public use by a $100 fine – took effect Oct. 20, 2014. It was championed by then-Councilman Jim Kenney, who went on to make it a cornerstone of his successful bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination.
The law change was controversial, and for Kenney, politically risky, as he fought for the signature of a hesitant Mayor Nutter and the support of Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who initially vowed his department would continue making arrests before pledging to abide by the new rules.
That hasn’t dissuaded Kenney, who has acknowledged his own past pot use, from wanting to push the envelope on the drug even further.
In a recent interview, Kenney said that, if elected mayor, he would give the legislation six more months to sink in, then take a hard look at changes. Among his first priorities: expunging the records of those arrested before the law took effect. Kenney is determined that individuals aren’t left with a burdensome criminal record over what is increasingly viewed as a minor infraction.
Complete legalization would be Kenney’s ideal, but he said he is hesitant to make that a priority with the state legislature when issues such as school funding still hang in the balance.
“My goal is zero arrests,” Kenney said. “I think it’s worked here and in other cities.”
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