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Our collective buzz was killed last week when Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said the Philadelphia Police Department would remain tough on weed, despite City Council passing a bill decriminalizing small amounts of the stuff.

Just a day after a decriminalization ordinance passed by a veto-proof majority, Ramsey told media that “state law trumps city ordinances”—and, due to Pennsylvania law, his force would continue arresting at will.

“We still have to treat it as a misdemeanor, until we are told otherwise by state law,” Ramsey said on Friday, adding: “I am not in favor at all of any form of legalization.”

Council’s action — to make getting caught with less than an ounce a $25 fine instead of an arrestable offense — was a long-time coming, and largely the result of both the national conversation on pot that’s turned 180 degrees over the last 40 years, and local groups like Philly NORML coordinating a massive effort in front of and behind the scenes to legalize the stuff. Much of that conversation has focused on the racial disparity of marijuana-related arrests, of which African-Americans represent a gigantic majority.

According to the Marijuana Policy Project, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to regulating pot like alcohol, Ramsey’s stance is nothing new.

“Philadelphia is definitely not an anomaly,” says Morgan Fox, MPP’s communications manager. “While most police officers don’t necessarily want to ignore the will of the people, leadership is always quick to point out that changes in local law do not affect their ability to continue to enforce state and federal laws against marijuana possession.”

Some of the best data on decriminalization implementation looks at Chicago. That city passed a decriminalization ordinance in 2012. Afterwards, arrests for marijuana possession actually went down 21 percent. And while that sounds great, it’s only half the story.

According to a report conducted by the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, Chicago represented the worst implementation of any Illinois municipality which had decriminalized, perhaps because of race.

“Of all the municipalities evaluated, Chicago had one of the worst levels of implementation. For every single ticket written after the ordinance was implemented, more than 14 arrests occurred. Only 7% of cases involving misdemeanor marijuana possession resulted in a ticket in Chicago, with the remaining 93% resulting in arrest,” according to the study.

The existence of such a local ordinance had the ability to influence police, but it was more the exception than rule in Chicago.

Sadly, geographic disparity by area continued in Chicago even after the decriminalization ordinance passed. “Most arrests, both pre ordinance and post ordinance, occurred in neighborhoods that were 90% or more non-white, with the greatest number of arrests occurring on the South and West sides of Chicago … Of the 25 communities with the highest rates of arrests, almost all were 90% African American,” according to the report.

“It usually becomes a matter of individual officer discretion as to whether they make good use of their time and resources and follow the local law,” adds Fox, “or waste their efforts enforcing state marijuana laws against people for possessing a substance safer than alcohol. Good cops do the former.”

Hope isn’t all lost, of course: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf supports decriminalizing marijuana at the state level.

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  1. 6/24 Morning Buzz | PoliticsPA

    […] no bombshell but … York Daily Record: Editorial: Constant turnpike hikes taking a toll Phillynow.com: On police disregarding weed decriminalization, ‘Philadelphia is definitely not an anomoly’ […]

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