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Significant Decline for Marijuana Arrests in New York City and Philadelphia

A decriminalization law in Philadelphia and new procedures in New York City bring a sharp drop in arrests.

For decades east coast cities have been arresting tens of thousands of cannabis consumers every year. That has all started to change under historic shifts in policy that were adopted in the fall of 2014.

Philadelphia became the nation’s largest city to decriminalize marijuana possession when the City Council voted in favor of a new set of procedures last year. Initially Mayor Michael Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey were cool to the idea. But the mayor eventually came around to sign the bill and the Philadelphia Police have dutifully implemented the policy. Philly was racking up more than 4,000 arrests each year at a steady pace. The new law allows police officers to issue code violation tickets in lieu of handcuffs and holding cells. The fines are now $25 for possession and $100 for smoking in public. The measure went into effect on October 20, 2014. Data released by the PPD shows a dramatic decrease in the number of arrests – just 63 from 10/20/14 to 12/31/14. In previous years there were more than 500 possession arrests in the city during the same time period. This is an 88% reduction. There were 35 code violation tickets issued in that time as well. This is the first time since the era of modern prohibition that there has been any real decline in arrests. Those given tickets do not have a permanent criminal record. The new law applies to juveniles and adults.

The same can be seen in New York City, where during peak years there were more than 50,000 adults arrested annually. NYC did not adopt a decrim law but instead the NYPD is working under a new directive form Mayor Bill de Blasio. Offenders are now being given a non-criminal summons and made to pay a fine of $100. The previous procedure saw all offenders handcuffed and taken into custody. They were then prosecuted in criminal court, facing up to 90 days in jail and saddled with a permanent criminal record. The numbers in NYC are also significant – a 42% reduction in November then a 75% decline in December. Ironically a 1977 state law in New York already made possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana a non-criminal violation instead of a misdemeanor. But a catch in that law stated that if the weed was “in public view” an arrest could occur. NYPD made all of their arrest under the “public view” prevision.

While much of the focus in marijuana reform is on medical access and full legalization in the western United States, decriminalization remains a significant factor in the East.

Maryland implemented a decrim law last year encompassing Baltimore. Washington DC also adopted a $25 fine for possession. Massachusetts voters approved a ballot initiative for decrim in 2008 which includes the city of Boston.

While fully commercial marijuana has yet to cross the Mississippi River a profound moment has been still been reached on the east coast where some of the nation’s biggest cities have stopped criminal prohibition for consumers.

If both NYC and Philly stay on track throughout 2015 it will mean almost 30,000 fewer cannabis consumers will be arrested. That could save these two cities a combined $37 million dollars every year.

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