Nutter Weighing City Council's Bill to Decriminalize Small Amounts of Pot
By Mike Dunn
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Philadelphia City Council today signed off on a bill that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana. And there were enough votes to override what could be a veto this fall from Mayor Nutter.
All thirteen of City Council's Democratic members voted in favor of the pot decriminalization bill, and Council's three Republicans voted against.
The measure makes possession of about an ounce of pot punishable only by a $25 fine, with the matter never entering the court system.
One of those "yes" votes came from Councilman Bill Greenlee, who said an ounce of pot does not warrant a criminal record.
"It does not seem fair for what most people consider a minor incident to potentially risk people's future," he said.
Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who also supported the bill, said the police department's resources should be focused elsewhere.
"To spend the time and the amount of money that is really required to prosecute someone with small amounts of marijuana, while we have so many other bigger issues in the city, does seem a little bit not where we need to be headed," Bass said.
The bill's sponsor, Councilman Jim Kenney, estimates that the new pot policy could save the police department and the courts $4 million a year.
Among the three no-votes was Brian O'Neill, whose district includes much of the Far Northeast.
"I've already heard from parents," he said. "They're not concerned about what it's going to save the city if their kids wind up with drug problems. And I don't want to legalize a drug like marijuana that most parents fear because they know it is a gateway drug."
And his GOP colleague, Councilman David Oh, said the marijuana trade should be condoned:
"While people may enjoy marijuana, I think it is also important to understand that people are being killed in the marijuana drug trade."
The measure now goes to Mayor Nutter, and since Council is now in recess, he has most of the summer to decide whether to sign it or veto it. Today, he said he's unsure.
"It is obviously a complicated piece of legislation," the mayor said. "I know concerns have been expressed by Police Commissioner Ramsey, DA Seth Williams, and representatives in our court system. So we'll read through the legislation."
The mayor's public safety director, Mike Resnick, spoke out against the measure when it was debated in committee earlier this month (see related story). Resnick argued that because the bill still gives the police the discretion to make an arrest, it could create an unfair system of enforcement.
He also said officers would not be able to accurately judge whether the pot seized crosses the 30-gram threshold.
Still, the measure passed with enough votes to override a possible veto by Nutter.
Because Council is adjourning until September, the mayor does not have to act on the bill until then. But because of the veto-proof majority, Kenney is calling on Nutter to order the police, through an executive order, to adhere to the policy immediately. That, he says, would spare the city a few hundred pot arrests over the summer.
On the school funding front, City Council today approved a measure that authorizes the city to borrow $27 million and then gift the money to the school district to help it pay its bills by the end of this month.
Lawmakers then introduced another borrowing bill, this one for up to $30 million, to help the district in the coming school year (see related story).
That proposal will not be debated until the fall, but School Reform Commission chairman Bill Green said he was pleased by the Council action.
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