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Kenney wants to downgrade pot possession in Philadelphia

Philadelphia City Councilman James F. Kenney has changed tactics in his drive to get the city to soften its stance against marijuana possession, introducing a bill today to make possession of less than an ounce of pot a civil violation punishable by a $25 fine.

Previously, he introduced a bill that called for police to stop making custodial arrests for pot and instead issue offenders a summons to appear in court. But court and Nutter administration officials said that bill would create too many administrative burdens to implement.

Kenney said ending weed arrests would save thousands of police hours spent on a low-level crime - last year 4,200 people were arrested for pot possession, he said. Recent ACLU studies have found a racial component to the law: More than 83 percent of those arrested in the city for marijuana were black.

But Director of Public Safety Michael Resnick said the city's criminal justice system wasn't equipped to give out summons on the street or mail them out to pot offenders. The change also might not save time for officers, he said. All the information gathered on defendants who are arrested and given a preliminary arraignment still would have to be collected and entered into the court system, and the marijuana still would have to be processed, weighed, and tested at a forensic lab.

Kenney said his new bill would eliminate those problems by making possession of a small amount of marijuana an offense akin to talking on a cell phone while driving. A number of cities have made a similar change, including Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Both of Kenney's bills would have allowed police to make arrests under a variety of circumstances, including if the offender could not prove their identity.

Kenney said he intends to bring his new bill for a final vote before Council's summer recess in June.

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