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After months of debate, City Council finally voted on—and passed—a bill that, if signed into law, would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in Philadelphia.

The bill, introduced by Councilman-at-Large Jim Kenney, would allow police to issue a $25 fine for the possession of less than an ounce of weed, instead of current practices which require an arrest, custody, a $200 penalty, and a drug treatment program.

Kenney has been working toward a change in this law for several months, including, at one point, calling upon Mayor Michael Nutter to issue an executive order to decriminalize small amounts of weed. Nutter did not do that.

Numerous people showed up at City Council to testify on the legislation on Thursday, including Philadelphian Tamira Moss, a young black woman who says she lost her job after being arrested with a small amount of pot in Philadelphia. Calling the current law unfair, Moss said she was an upstanding citizen on all accounts, but her arrest made it more difficult to gain employment.

Her story was supplemented by another young Philadelphian, who said he graduated from South Philly high with honors in 2002 and had a solid work history, but is now handicapped by his marijuana arrest.

Among the reasons stated by newly-found proponents of marijuana decriminalization, and legalization across the state and country is the seemingly unfairness of the law’s enforcement. Surveys have shown that marijuana usage among races is fairly consistent. However, in Philadelphia in 2012, 84 percent of the 4,272 marijuana arrests made in the city involved African Americans.

This fact is especially important to Pastor Darrell Robinson, who noted he was not testifying because he’d been arrested for marijuana—in fact, he had not.

“As you have heard we have two young people here who were not only arrested for a small amount of weed, but the rest of their lives are jeopardized,” he said. “Their future is jeopardized. Their ability to make money and live a decent life in the city is jeopardized because of a small amount of weed.”

Robinson additionally noted that the youth who suffered because of unfair police action “did not create this unfair bias this racially bias policing but they have to exist in it.”

When the bill came up for a vote, two Republican members of Council—Dennis O’Brien and David Oh—spoke out against it.

Both said they appreciated Kenney’s desire to think outside the box on this issue, but did not think citywide decriminalization was the way to go.

“I am of the belief that Philadelphia has no business making up its own penalties,” said O’Brien. Among his concerns was a future misinterpretation by city residents to believe that decriminalization meant legalization. Such thoughts, he said, could lead to “assaults on police officers.”

Oh, for his part, also thought decriminalization would mislead people. He added that marijuana, whether decriminalized or not, is an “organized crime issue” and “people are murdered” over it.

Nevertheless, the bill passed City Council, easily, by a vote of 13-3. It now goes to Mayor Nutter for his signature.

About The Author

Staff writer

Randy LoBasso is the winner of the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association's 2014 Distinguished Writing Award for his news and politics coverage at Philadelphia Weekly. He has also contributed to Alt Ledes, Salon, The Guardian and PennLive.

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