Philly seeks to decriminalize marijuana

Nicandro Iannacci

(source: Flickr)

Mayor Michael Nutter and City Councilman James Kenney have reached a deal to decriminalize marijuana possession and use in Philadelphia. The bill could set the city on a course for full legalization.

Under the terms of the compromise agreement, those caught possessing fewer than 30g of marijuana would be issued a citation and fined $25. Those found using the drug in public would see a fine of $100.

“I have been working with the administration for many months on this issue,” Kenney told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I am very happy we have worked out a commonsense agreement that will keep police out on the street fighting crime … and will also save thousands of people a year from the life-altering consequences of a criminal record for a minor offense.”

In June, the City Council passed a bill making similar reductions in penalties for minor possession. At the time, Nutter refused to sign the bill, citing unaddressed concerns about public use.

On Monday, however, the mayor sang a different tune.

“I think Councilman Kenney’s advocacy here has caused all of us to talk about this and focus on this particular issue in a very, very different way,” Nutter said. “We were never at odds about the goal, and we share the same goal: People should not necessarily get arrested, or be hassled, or end up with a life-changing criminal record.”

The bill will be formally introduced to the Council on Thursday, when members return from their summer recess. It could go into effect as early as October 20.

Statewide, the possession or use of marijuana remains a criminal act. When members of the state Senate Appropriations Committee return from their own recess on September 15, however, they will consider the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act. If they approve, the full body will vote.

But even for states with legalization regimes, the controversy continues.

A report this week by the New York Times highlights the case of Brandon Coats, who was fired from his job as a customer-service representative for Dish Network after he tested positive for marijuana.

The catch: Coats lives in Colorado, where voters legalized pot by referendum in 2012.

On top of that, Coats tested positive because he has used medical marijuana nightly since 2009 to relieve the painful spasms felt after a car crash left him paralyzed at age 16.

Indeed, numerous businesses in Colorado and Washington, as well as states that only permit medical marijuana, are hewing to the drug-free policies they maintained before recent laws were passed. In fact, one survey shows 21 percent of businesses in Colorado actually tightened their restrictions after the 2012 vote.

As a result, citizens across the country are stuck between a permissive legal regime and a business culture that does not welcome their newly liberated habits.

Others face the added complication of a local government that doesn’t want pot shops opening in its backyard.

The city of Fife, Washington, offers an instructive example. While state voters joined Colorado in approving legalization in 2012, Fife was one of many cities in both states to pass local bans.

Tedd Wetherbee, the would-be owner of a strip-mall pot shop in Fife, sued the city to have the ban overturned as a violation of state law and the popular will.

In late August, Pierce County Judge Ronald Culpepper ruled in favor of the city, saying the ban does not conflict with state law. He did, however, reject an argument forwarded by city officials that federal law preempts state law in the case. (The Controlled Substances Act continues to ban marijuana as a Schedule I substance.)

Constitution Daily has also reported on a bubbling conflict between Congress and the District of Columbia over marijuana use within the capital’s borders, as well as continued uncertainty for banks and other financial institutions that hope to service the growing pot economy without the cloud of possible federal intervention.

It all adds up to the promise of more debate in the City of Brotherly Love.

Nicandro Iannacci is a web strategist at the National Constitution Center.

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