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Philadelphia may end arrests for possession of small pot amount

| Thursday, June 19, 2014, 8:03 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia's police department could stop arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana under a bill passed with a veto-proof majority by City Council on Thursday, although officials have a long list of concerns.

The bill passed, 13-3, with every Democrat in favor of it and every Republican against it.

Mayor Michael Nutter has until September to make a decision, and a spokesman, Mark McDonald, would not immediately say whether the Democrat would sign it. The Pennsylvania attorney general's office said Thursday that it was not aware of any other municipality that had taken a similar step on marijuana enforcement.

Under the measure, the police department would be allowed to change its policy to no longer require officers to arrest somebody who is 18 and older for possessing 30 grams or less of marijuana. It would still be punishable by a $25 fine.

Officers could still arrest someone they could not properly identify or someone with other outstanding warrants, and it would not change law enforcement policy on selling the drug, driving under the influence or possession by minors.

The bill's sponsor, Councilman Jim Kenney, estimated that the new policy could save the police department and the courts $4 million a year. But Republican Brian O'Neill said the savings are beside the point.

“I've already heard from parents. They're not concerned about what it's going to save the city if their kids wind up with drug problems,” O'Neill said, KYW-AM radio reported. “And I don't want to legalize a drug like marijuana that most parents fear because they know it is a gateway drug.”

Supporters also noted that a change in police department policy would spare offenders a criminal record for what they view as a minor infraction.

McDonald said the Nutter administration appreciates the intent of the bill to save money in the criminal justice system and treat people more leniently, but it has substantial legal and operational concerns about it.

For one, other police forces, such as a university police or the state police, might enforce marijuana possession under the state law while city police officers would be hard pressed to figure out whether someone was holding more than 30 grams or less.

McDonald said the police department has not perfected the ability to identify someone on the street without bringing them into the police station.

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