Philadelphia Decriminalization Already Paying Dividends in First Month

Video thumbnail for youtube video Sentencing Guidelines in Pennsylvania ExplainedPhiladelphia’s efforts to decriminalize possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana are paying dividends in one month.


On October 20, 2014, the City of Philadelphia enacted an ordinance that authorized City of Philadelphia police to charge a summary citation (similar to a traffic ticket) instead of a misdemeanor narcotics offense.  In 2012 activists with Philly NORML, a local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, investigated the police arrest statistics and found that 80% of the custodial arrests were young men of color despite usage rates consistent with their white counterparts.  This led to an effort to reduce the number of arrests by brokering an agreement with City Council, the Mayor and the Police.


Philadelphia initially tried a diversionary program at the magisterial level, but the arrests continued even though the cases were being resolved with a non-traffic summary citation.  In other words, despite the knowledge that the case would be “worked out” or “reduced” police continued to make arrests.  And those arrests continued to reflect significant racial disparity.


The results after only one month are very encouraging, very encouraging.  According to recent statistics, custodial arrests are down by 78% over the same period in 2013.  The police exercised the discretion afforded them and still made 72 arrests, nowhere near the 325 of the same period in 2013.


Why is this significant? 


  • No arrest means the cannabis offender will not be taken in to custody and potentially being required to post bond in order to secure their release;
  • No arrest frees police who would otherwise be involved in processing complaints and arrest reports and transporting cannabis offenders to jail;
  • No record of being charged with a misdemeanor level offense will be entered in to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC).
  • No fingerprinting;
  • No need for an “expungement petition”. Even if the charge is reduced to a summary offense the misdemeanor charge remains on the offender’s NCIC record until it is expunged.  One may not realize for years that they have a “rap sheet” reflecting a marijuana charge until they lost a job, etc.
  • No need for lawyers! While is breaks my heart to say this, there’s no need for my services at the preliminary hearing level, trial level or to file the expungement petition and (potentially) appear to argue the petition;
  • Help rebuild police/ citizen trust. Instead of arresting the 18 yr. old kid and hauling him off to jail, the officer will issue him a ticket.  No one goes to jail.  The kid, his parents, his friends and his community will understand and appreciate the discretion and the fact that the “punishment” of seizure of the cannabis and a fine is appropriate;
  • De novo right to appeal – in the event a cannabis offender wants to challenge the fine or the sentence she has an automatic right to appeal to the Court of Common Pleas level.


I personally believe nothing short of full legalization on the federal level will adequately address the rights of cannabis consumers, and finally end the 40+ year War on Weed that has saddled untold hundreds of thousands of Americans with career killing criminal convictions.  Decriminalization, however, is a huge step in protecting the vast majority of marijuana offenders, 80% of whom are charged with nothing more than simple possession.  Pennsylvania spends as much as $350 million annually on marijuana related enforcement, courts and corrections.  The potential savings are obvious.


We need decriminalization here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania right away.  Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have progressive policies towards cannabis enforcement reflecting the national trend and public opinion.  But go to almost any of the other 65 counties in PA and the cannabis offender will be prosecuted for a misdemeanor charge with police, prosecutors and judges all joking “we’re not Colorado yet, counselor!”


Pittsburgh NORML is following Philly NORML’s lead in working with local policy makers and police in an attempt to formalize Allegheny County’s de facto decriminalization policy.  Here in Pittsburgh we have similar racial disparities in charging.  But, unlike Philadelphia, a cannabis offender will almost always be given a summons to appear in Court as opposed to being arrested, regardless of color.  Our need locally wasn’t as acute as Philadelphia’s, but our goal is the same – no more ridiculous misdemeanor level charges for minor cannabis possession.


We look forward to 2015 and working with Republicans and Democrats in Harrisburg to help protect Pennsylvania’s cannabis consumers and to use our limited law enforcement resources more judiciously.  The War on Weed has been an abysmal failure build on lies bigotry that has cost our Commonwealth untold millions if not billions in law enforcement, corrections, and the lost productivity of the cannabis offender who’s economic potential is forever crippled because of a small amount conviction.


Patrick K. Nightingale, Esquire

Executive Director

Pittsburgh NORML

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