A new era dawned last October when activist Mike Whiter lit up a joint in the City Hall courtyard, and a police officer handed him a piece of paper notifying him he owed $100. It was a set piece, a ceremonial way to celebrate the fact that possession of a small amount of marijuana or smoking weed in public would now lead to a ticket instead of an arrest and appearance in court.
But the more accurate and enduring images of the change entail the smoke that’s been in the air since then. Whiter says he has lit up many joints in public. Not once has he dealt with the police, and he knows he’s not the only one.
“I’ve noticed a lot more people smoking openly by bus stops and the subway. All over the place,” he says. “And I’m glad. People are unafraid, and it’s being normalized, which has to happen.”
Nearly one year has passed since Philadelphia became then the largest city in the U.S. to decriminalize marijuana. Marijuana proponents have seen improved relationships with the police, visitors coming to Philadelphia to smoke and a culture change now that users don’t need to have, as activist N.A. Poe says, “the paranoia that you’re going to be arrested for smoking a plant.”
Police now give a $25 fine to people caught with 30 grams or less of marijuana and a $100 fine to those caught smoking in public. Arrests are made for buying small amounts, for amounts larger than 30 grams, for unsure amounts and a few other reasons.
According to data provided to Billy Penn by the Philadelphia police department, only 567 arrests for marijuana possession have been made from November 2014 — days after the new law went into effect — to the beginning of August 2015. In the same timeframe 2013 to 2014, police made 2,512 arrests. That’s a drop of 77 percent.
Since the decriminalization of weed in late October of last year, about 400 individuals have been given citations for either possession or smoking in public, according to info from the police department and past stories by the Inquirer. An exact count of citations could not be provided by the Office of Administrative Review by the deadline for this story.
“To the credit of the Philadelphia Police Department they did enforce this policy,” says Chris Goldstein, co-chair of the Philly branch of the pro-marijuana group NORML and editor at Freedom Leaf magazine. “Beat cops and everyone else, they seem supportive of it.”
Those numbers show not only a sharp drop in arrests but a reduction in overall legal action against people possessing marijuana. With a total of approximately 1,000 arrests and citations since last November, people have been getting caught with weed about 1,500 fewer times than the previous year, nearly one-third as often. Unless Philadelphians have taken the highly unlikely route of cutting consumption substantially, police have likely been paying less attention to marijuana smokers. As Whiter theorizes, perhaps marijuana usage is becoming normalized.
Poe, who along with Goldstein helped launch the decriminalization movement, sees this difference throughout the city, particularly during weekends on South Street. People are smoking in public in an area he considers one of the more heavily-policed areas near Center City.
“Do I like walking through Rittenhouse and you get a little whiff, or down South Street?” Poe asks. “Fuck yeah I do.”
Poe and Whiter led a pro medical marijuana rally in July at LOVE Park they called Smoke Down Prohibition 2.0: Free the Weed. Philadelphia had seen these events before, and they didn’t end well for the protest leaders. In 2013, Poe and Goldstein were both arrested near the Liberty Bell during one such action. Poe spent five days in jail for marijuana possession and got a year of probation. Goldstein was sentenced to two years probation for smoking marijuana and had to pay a $3,000 fine.
“I might’ve smoked the most expensive joint in Philadelphia’s history,” he says.
This summer at the rally not one arrest was made. Not even one citation was given, according to Stephen Glenn, commander of the police department’s Civil Affairs Unit. He says officers lined the periphery and called the protesters “a large, well-behaved group of people.” Poe says they marched with a seven-foot bong and had 250 to 300 people smoking marijuana. An account of the event by the ECannabisCoalition describes a cloud of smoke in LOVE Park that hung in the air for 10 minutes.
“Everybody there was smoking pot for at least a half hour,” Whiter says, “and then we took to the streets and started smoking pot in the streets, walking with the police. And not a single citation was issued. That’s the way it should be. I think the police in Philadelphia see that.”
In addition to a culture change, the city is likely saving significant amounts of money. Jim Kenney, who pushed the decriminalization bill, estimated decriminalization would save the city about $7 million annually on court and police costs. Goldstein says he works with NORML affiliates in other cities, and they could soon be pushing public officials for similar laws in Pittsburgh, Allentown and Reading.
He sees the only major negative since decriminalization to be the disproportionate number of arrests of black people for possession. According to data from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System, blacks have comprised 77 percent of marijuana possession arrests so far this year. That share is down slightly from the same time period in 2014, which was 84 percent, but still much higher than one would expect in a city with the black share of population at about 44 percent and in a country where whites are known to consume more marijuana than blacks.
“The enforcement needs to be equal,” Goldstein says. “(The amount) of black people getting arrested and getting cited is crazy with the amount of white pot smokers. We still need to deal with that disturbing reality.”
Poe says he’s seen many people visiting to enjoy the relaxed laws, including people he terms “medical marijuana refugees,” those who need marijuana for medical purposes and would prefer to smoke here where punishments are much lighter than elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
For Poe, Goldstein and Whiter, medical marijuana is the next step. Bills for it have floundered at the state level, and they want to see that change.
They’re also looking north toward Portland, Maine, south toward Washington D.C. and especially west toward Colorado, where marijuana is legal and imagining the possibilities for here.
“Once Jim Kenney gets into office and all settled into his seat,” Poe says, “I’d like to find my way over there and talk to him about legalizing marijuana in Philly.”