Should Philadelphia fully decriminalize marijuana?
That question might go to voters this year, but the final say will come from the Republican-controlled state Legislature.
A resolution in City Council proposes a ballot question to change the city’s Home Rule Charter to add a section calling on the Pennsylvania General Assembly and governor to decriminalize, regulate and tax cannabis for adults aged 21 years or older for non-medical purposes.
At-large Democratic Councilman Derek Green, the main sponsor of the legislation, said he hopes to have the question on the May 21 ballot as a chance for residents to directly weigh in about the issue.
Although not a full supporter of legalizing cannabis, Green said, “I want to get a perspective from voters … to get a sense about where people are” on the issue.
The City Council Committee on Law and Government held a hearing about the proposal Monday, but did not vote it out of committee.
If the proposal goes before the full City Council, two-thirds of the members will have to approve it for it to happen.
Asked if the votes were there in City Council to get the question on the ballot, Green said, “I haven’t had a chance to really lobby people on it.”
During Monday’s hearing, Julie Wertheimer, senior director of the Office of Criminal Justice in the city managing director’s office, said decriminalization supports the office’s goals of balancing public safety with “reducing the flow of individuals into the criminal justice system and addressing racial disparities that persist within the system.”
Mayor Jim Kenney, she noted, also was instrumental in leading the effort to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in the city five years ago.
Green said the criminalization of marijuana disproportionately impacts people of color.
And the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania had numbers to back that up. “Law enforcement officers in Pennsylvania arrest more than 20,000 people per year for marijuana possession, and they are disproportionately people of color,” said Andy Hoover, a spokesman for the ACLU.
Hoover said it’s time to end the criminalization of marijuana. He added, “The war on drugs has been an utter failure, and marijuana prohibition has unfairly and unnecessarily damaged thousands of lives.”
Green said the city and state also stand to generate tax revenue from legalizing and regulating the drug, which could be lost if the neighboring states of New Jersey, Delaware and New York do it first.
Regardless of whether the proposed ballot question gets to voters, legalizing the sale of recreational cannabis requires the approval of the state Legislature in Harrisburg.
While Pennsylvania approved medical marijuana in 2016 and the state is currently licensing commercial hemp production under a new federal law, legalization of recreational marijuana has stalled.
Gov. Tom Wolf has said he is open to considering the legalization of recreational marijuana. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, an advocate of legalization, is currently on a listening tour throughout the state to gauge the public’s opinion.
Fetterman is likely to hear a lot of support for recreational marijuana.
Approximately 56 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania supported legalization of recreational marijuana in 2017, according to a Franklin & Marshall College poll.
Philadelphia decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2014, which was signed by then-Mayor Michael Nutter, but possession remains illegal.
The bill made possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine of $25 and smoking cannabis in public subject to a $100 fine. Similar decriminalization legislation is on the books in Allentown, Pittsburgh and State College, among others jurisdictions in the state.
Last year, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner ended cash bail for more than two dozen low-level offenses, including marijuana offenses.
Recreational marijuana is legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia.
While cannabis is now legal to buy in numerous states, the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, noting it has a “high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence.”
Many of the states that legalized marijuana did so through voter referendum, but Pennsylvania law does not allow for such a process, according to The Associated Press.