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Philly420: Will Philadelphia's next mayor keep marijuana decrim?

The next mayor of Philadelphia will have some choices when it comes to cannabis.

For the last six months police have been issuing civil citations for marijuana possession.  City Council passed a bill last fall that changed the procedure from making mandatory custodial arrests to the imposition of simple fines: $25 for possession of less than 30 grams and $100 for smoking in public.

Police can still put people in handcuffs if they are caught in the act of buying marijuana. But, overall, arrests are down almost 80 percent.

Philly has had the highest concentration of pot arrests in Pennsylvania. The statistics however are racially skewed. Of the 4,000 arrested for marijuana each year those arrested were disproportionally young black men.

The city's new marijuana policy means that most of those arrested are not taken into holding cells, prosecuted in court, or stigmatized with a permanent record.  The new citations also apply to juvenile offenders.

Notably, the new law is saving the city nearly $3 million a year.

Initially, Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey were critical when Council passed the decrim bill. But Nutter eventually signed it into law and Ramsey has fulfilled his promise to implement the policy.

Philly420 asked four of the leading Democratic primary candidates for mayor to weigh in.

Jim Kenney, who sponsored the marijuana decriminalization bill while he was on City Council, said he certainly would keep the policy in place. If anything, he believes the penalties are still too steep. "If possible, I'd like to reduce those fines," he said.

Kenney often voices his support for taxing and regulating cannabis. He also has been consistently candid about being a cannabis consumer in the past.

Philly420 asked Kenney if the city should impose a special tax on retail marijuana if Pennsylvania lawmakers were to fully legalize it.

Said Kenney; "I would be open to looking at it, yes."

Nelson Diaz, a former city solicitor who also served as a judge and bills himself as a "civil rights warrior," said he is open to all levels of cannabis reform.

"I support full legalization of marijuana, not just decriminalization, and will work with elected officials at other levels of government to make it a reality," Diaz said.

When asked about levying a local tax,  Diaz had a straightforward answer.  "If marijuana were fully legal, I think it should be taxed at 15% - slightly higher than the level for alcohol," he said.

Anthony Hardy Williams, currently serving a state Senator, hosted a forum last year on marijuana legalization at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

When asked this week about the city's cannabis codes, Williams praised the shift towards civil fines.

"I'm glad that the City was able to build upon the Small Amount of Marijuana (SAM) program that District Attorney Seth Williams implemented back in 2010. This is the right approach," Williams said in a statement. "Our prisons are overcrowded, and nearly 300,000 Philadelphians, disproportionately people of color, have a criminal record that keeps them from fully participating in our society."

Williams, who has voted in favor of a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state Senate, said he continues to support safe access. But when it comes to further liberalization of marijuana laws, Williams takes a more conservative stance.

"I do not support marijuana legalization for recreational purposes," Williams said.

Still, Williams is willing to consider potential tax revenues legal marijuana could generate. He pointed out that Denver brought in over $2 million in cannabis taxes last year.

"But if we are talking on purely hypothetical terms-- since we're a long way from considering this in PA --  I would tax cannabis locally," Williams said. " Colorado has shown it would serve as a great funding resource for any number of things; schools, street cleaning/repair or support for local health and human services."

Until very recently, Lynne Abraham voiced strong opposition to new decriminalization code. As District Attorney from 1991 to 2010, Abraham prosecuted about 65,000 residents for possessing small amounts of marijuana. When her successor Seth Williams created the SAM program, Abraham excoriated him before the United States Senate for opening the diversion court.

In January, Abraham again took issue with decriminalization, telling Philadelphia Magazine's Citified blog "I'm against it, especially for kids."

As a mayoral candidate, Abraham has softened her stance considerably. The new policy is, after all, extremely popular among voters.

When asked this week about her evolving position, Abraham responded in a statement with a variety of answers.

"Having been a trusted and proven leader on public safety matters as District Attorney for Philadelphia, my utmost concern has been, and will always be, the health, welfare and safety of all Philadelphia residents, and especially for our children," said Abraham.

She said she favored medical access saying, "I support legislation which allows the use of medical marijuana for medical reasons under recognized medical guidelines and under the care of a physician."

When it came to the new civil citation policy Abraham said, "I support decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.  I would not support decriminalization for children and adolescents."

She went further saying "The use of marijuana by adults in the privacy of their home should be of no concern to law enforcement.  I do not, however, support that portion of the Council ordinance that imposes a $25 fine.  In my judgment, it is unnecessary, causes an undue bureaucratic chore to collect the fines, and would have a disparate impact on some of our residents."

When Philly420 asked if that meant she would prefer to impose no fines at all, Abraham did not reply. Still, this was Abraham's biggest shift in position from her former stance of absolute criminlization.

As far as a local cannabis tax was concerned, she offered the most distant opinion: "Given that a few states, like Colorado, have only recently legalized marijuana, I would want to ensure there is enough time for those states to experience both the positive and negative effects of legalizing marijuana before concluding if and how to introduce legalization in our State."

Right now, those under 18 who are nabbed with less than 30 grams of cannabis are detained, their parents are called and a civil citation is given to the adult.

In 2013 there were 536 juveniles arrested for marijuana in Philadelphia. Most of them (390) were aged 16 and 17 years old. Of those juveniles arrested, 441 were black and 113 were white. More than 90 percent were male.

So Kenney, Diaz and Williams would keep decriminalization fully intact. All three are open to having Philadelphia take in some taxes if cannabis becomes legal.

Abraham's statements are more difficult for me to parse. She remains cagey on the possibility of  taxable marijuana.  Her views on decrim for adolescents remain opaque. Abraham's response could be interpreted to mean that she'd start arresting  juveniles again for small amounts of weed.

The next mayor stands ready to inherit the largest American city to decriminalize marijuana. But will that next city executive uphold the decrim policy? Stay tuned.

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and co-chair of PhillyNorml. Contact him at