Marijuana activists pose with pride after the reported first weed citation is issued.

Marijuana activists pose with pride after the reported first weed citation is issued.

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Marijuana in Philly: Yes, it’s decriminalized — but we’re still collecting fines

It’s been 18 months today since the city statute passed — but state law remains.

How much moola has the city made from weed fines? According to the Office of Administrative Review, fines paid for possessing a small amount of marijuana under the city’s relaxed marijuana law have totaled $19,540.

Today marks 18 months since marijuana decriminalization took effect. The city law directs police to process possession of 30 grams (about an ounce) or less as a civil offense rather than a criminal one. Simply carrying it is a $25 fine; smoking in public is a $100 fine.

We are still awaiting the most recent statistics on citations from Philadelphia Police Department. The one-year anniversary stats this past October showed that arrests for small amounts of marijuana had fallen off a cliff, down 77 percent. Even with this, racial disparities persisted in the arrests.

But the state law, which considers marijuana possession a criminal offense, remains. So, if a state trooper were to stop a Philadelphian for marijuana possession, that would still be processed as a misdemeanor. “When it comes to our office we determine if it’s eligible for the SAM (Small Amounts of Marijuana)  program,” explains Derek Riker, chief of the Diversion Court for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. “The majority people are eligible.” People who had recently committed a violent crime or who had an illegal gun on their person when apprehended wouldn’t be.

Through the city’s SAM program, offenders must pay $200 fines and attend a court-mandated drug class.

In the last 18 months, there have been 1,075 cases in the SAM program. In 2015, there were 756 cases. Compare this to 2013, when the SAM court saw 3,201 cases.

According the Office of Administrative Review, 1,892 people have been cited for possession a small amount of marijuana or smoking in public. Out of this, 1,542 had it on hand; 350 people had sparked. Twenty-eight percent of these fines have been paid; $54,720 in fees remains uncollected.

Mayor Jim Kenney, who sponsored the bill as a city councilman, has promised that his administration would review the bill. Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt tells Billy Penn this review will be complete within the year. As a councilman, Kenney estimated that the bill would bring in $7 million in cost-savings, $3 million in police costs and $4 million in courts costs, each year.

Mark A.R. Kleiman, director of the Marron Institute of Urban Management’s Crime and Justice program at New York University, says finding a majority of fines uncollected is typical for small charges, like jaywalking. He concedes that it’s “better than former arrests policy,” and “maybe progress.” However, Kleiman, a leading scholar on marijuana policy, continues, “I don’t see any evidence that a $25 fine is going to discourage people from using pot.”

Kleiman’s solution for Philly? Legalize it.

“I don’t see any good purpose to be served by punishing consuming it as opposed to selling it,” he said. “Issuing uncollected fines is bad policy. You should not issue penalties that you don’t enforce.”

Paula Weiss, executive director of the Office of Administrative Review, shed light on the collection process. “The recipient of a Code Violation Notice has the option to pay or to request and administrative review hearing,” she wrote in an email. “If they fail to request a hearing, or are found liable for the violation at the outcome of the hearing process and fail to pay, the City may initiate enhanced collection actions such as referral to a collection agency or credit bureau.”

In recent years, mounting fees for smaller offenses like speeding tickets or expired tags have garnered the label of “poverty violations” for how often they ensnare low-income residents. This is a burgeoning civil rights issue in advocacy circles. Kleiman believes that a model based on fines is harmful trend in government.

“There’s been a big attempt to make the criminal justice system self-financing off of offenders as a means to avoid raising taxes,” says Kleiman. This financing should occur through “taxation not offenders who are mostly poor. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip,” he says.
“We need to find an alternative to money that’s not jail,” Kleiman says of the criminal justice system. “We haven’t done that yet.”

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