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Report: DA Krasner ‘very close’ to rolling out policy decriminalizing drug possession

Krasner said he does "not see value in convicting people" who possess drugs, according to an Axios report.

District Attorney Larry Krasner in a file photo
District Attorney Larry Krasner in a file photoRead moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner reportedly is “very close” to implementing a policy that would move toward decriminalizing drug-possession cases.

“Possession is different than dealing,” Krasner told the news website Axios, which first reported the policy change and said it would air the full interview next month on an episode of its HBO series. “We are talking about people who are using drugs, the vast majority of them suffering from addiction. I do not see value in convicting people like that.”

The interview took place on May 1. Cameron L. Kline, a spokesperson for Krasner, said Wednesday that the idea was “still under development.”

“The DA believes that diversion is most often the best approach for dealing with simple drug possession, ideally to make sure that drug users get treatment for addiction as opposed to incarceration,” Kline wrote in an email. “We expect to have more to announce soon, but at this time there is no written policy or timeline for implementation.”

Under the plan as reported, people arrested or charged with possessing small amounts of illegal drugs would not be jailed or have a criminal record, but would enter a diversionary program in which they would receive treatment or participate in community service.

It is not clear if Krasner intends for the policy to apply to all amounts of drugs, or just small amounts. Kline said he had no additional comment beyond his statement.

What the police commissioner says

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said Wednesday that he was not aware of the Axios report, but said: “What we do need to be careful of is blanket policies that allow people to possess illegal narcotics without consequences. We have no interest in seeing people incarcerated who are addicted to substances that are illegal.”

But, Ross said, “the violence that often accompanies drug dealing is clearly driving our murder rate. We have to be careful that our ideology matches our reality.”

What the mayor’s office says

Mayor Jim Kenney’s spokesperson, Mike Dunn, said in an email that without knowing specifics of the proposal, the administration could not comment. He added: “ "What we need — and currently lack — is a clear understanding of the full policy, and a discussion of its possible repercussions.”

Dunn noted that in December 2017, before Krasner took office, the city had launched the Police Assisted Diversion (PAD) program in North Philly’s 22nd Police District. The diversion program allows police officers to connect people with addiction to social services instead of arresting them for low-level crimes like drug possession, purchasing, prostitution, and retail theft.

“Engagement with the service provider is the only requirement of the program, as we recognize that substance use disorder is a public health issue and making treatment compulsory can sometimes be counterproductive,” said Dunn. The PAD program has since expanded to two other police districts, the 39th in North Philly and the 24th, which includes drug-ravaged Kensington.

What Krasner has said in the past

Krasner already has shown leniency toward drug users. At a joint hearing of the Democratic Policy Committees in Harrisburg last month, Philadelphia’s district attorney said his office would not prosecute cannabis DUIs “unless people show active — I repeat, active — psychoactive amounts of cannabis in their system that rise to a level which has generally scientifically been agreed upon as affecting driving.”

In a February 2018 policy memo, Krasner announced that his office no longer would file charges in any instances of marijuana possession, regardless of weight. And he told prosecutors not to file charges for any offenses relating to paraphernalia or buying from a person where the drug involved is marijuana.

What has been done in Philly before

Under a policy initiative implemented by former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams in 2010, Philadelphia began arresting fewer people for marijuana possession.

Philadelphia was already a leader among big cities in taking a more tolerant approach to people possessing small amounts of marijuana, a trend that culminated in a 2014 city ordinance championed by Kenney, then a city councilman, which cleared the way for police to issue $25 citations for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Arrests plummeted, and the number of noncriminal citations soared.

Under Williams, the office had developed a Small Amounts of Marijuana (SAM) diversionary program. In the SAM court, anyone arrested with 30 grams or less of the drug agreed to pay $200 to take a three- to four-hour class, after which the charge was expunged.

Arrest data

From 2009 through 2017, the number of arrests for possession of opium, cocaine, and their derivatives (morphine, heroin, codeine) ranged from a low of 3,867 (in 2016) to 4,978 arrests (in 2017), according to city arrest data compiled on the Pennsylvania State Police website. In 2018, Krasner’s first year in office, there were 4,833 arrests for possession of those drugs.

Marijuana-possession arrests decreased under Williams’ tenure. There were 5,590 arrests in 2010, his first year as district attorney. That number plummeted to 2,887 in 2014, and dropped to 703 in 2016, his last full year in office. In Krasner’s first year, 2018, there were 622 marijuana-possession arrests.

Arrests for possession of synthetic narcotics also went down during Williams’ tenure. Arrests in 2010 totaled 814, compared with 629 in 2014, and 414 in 2016. In Krasner’s first year, there were 494 such arrests.

Staff writer Mark Fazlollah contributed to this article.