If you puzzled over Monday's big news about Philadelphia and marijuana, don't fret.
Reform-minded District Attorney Seth Williams has indeed vowed to radically alter how pot possession cases are handled in the city, but no one - at least no one with power - is talking about legalizing weed.
The courts are in chaos, as my colleagues Craig R. McCoy, Nancy Phillips, and Dylan Purcell have documented in grave detail. Paying cops overtime to testify in minor matters is a budget-buster.
Something's got to give in a city so desperate for cash it seeks donations to fill pools with water. Until bud is sold at state stores and taxed like Bud, best to extinguish meager marijuana cases as quickly and cheaply as possible.
After all, Philly cops make 3,000 small-time pot possession arrests each year, incidents where maybe a guy standing on the corner might have an ounce or less on him, no outstanding warrants, and was committing no other offense.
Traditionally, all 3,000 of these busts required hauling offenders into a police station for processing. The ensuing safari through the court system often tied up police, prosecutors, and judges for multiple hearings, all for sentences that rarely, if ever, involved jail time.
Best Monday ever?
Frat boys will still get fingerprinted for firing up on SEPTA or at Phillies games. But unless they're dealers, they'll probably pay a $200 fine, endure a preachy antidrug video, and emerge unscathed, without a criminal record. Sigma Chi saves face, and a strapped city saves millions.
"These marijuana cases just don't make financial sense. Each time a case is listed costs us at least $1,000," Williams conceded.
"For the most part, these are knuckleheads with one or two joints in their possession," the D.A. told me. "People shooting people, robbing people, raping people - those are the cases that really deserve our attention and resources."
Chris Goldstein wishes prosecutors would leave "marijuana consumers" alone. But for now, the advocate from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is so gleeful at this bureaucratic baby step, he told Facebook friends he'd experienced his "Best. Monday. Ever."
Goldstein spent a year lobbying city officials, cops, and prosecutors to reconsider their stance on pot.
"We identified the fact that marijuana consumers in Philadelphia are treated more harshly than they are in the rest of the state," Goldstein told me. "We pointed out the insidious racial disparity in the arrest data. We estimate that marijuana mug shots cost this city at least $3 million a year."
Moved to modify
Goldstein thought pols might act to avert a lawsuit over startling statistics showing black men make up more than 75 percent of pot arrests. Instead of fear, the promise of saving beaucoup cash - and even raising revenue - spurred the shift.
"There was," he noted, "too much money on the table to leave it."
You'd think if authorities are now treating pot possession as a summary offense, they'd simply seize the weed, issue a ticket, send the smoker walking, and save cops' time. But Williams won't go there, calling full-blown marijuana arrests a time-honored means of "clearing a corner."
Besides Williams, two state Supreme Court justices have signed off on the kinda-sorta-decriminalization, wink-and-nod-minimization pot policy change. One is Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, once the D.A. The other is Seamus P. McCaffery, the Harley-riding former cop who called advocates' wishful thinking about legalization "a crock."
"I spent 20 years patrolling the streets," McCaffery told me. "I'd lock up Monica Yant Kinney if I caught her smoking a joint."
At the same time, McCaffery seems to admit that until now, the penalty hasn't fit the crime. "We're giving young men and women criminal records," he demurred, "when it doesn't need to be that way."