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Legislation Would Make Marijuana Possession Ticketable Offense

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PHILADELPHIA -

Big changes may be on the way in the city of Philadelphia's war on drugs.

Legislation will be introduced in City Council on Thursday to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a ticketable offense. No more hand-cuffs and jail cell.

The idea is to free up tight resources and accept the reality of how these cases are prosecuted.

Four years ago, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams changed the way minor drug possession arrests were handled.

Instead of prosecuting in court, maybe asking for jail time, and saddling the offender with a criminal record, the new plan called for offenders to pay a 200-dollar fine and attend a drug education class.

Prosecutors saved time and resources and minor offenders caught a break: no jail time and no criminal record. This may be called the logical next step.

Philadelphia police made more than 4,200 arrests for simple possession of marijuana in 2012.

This is happening in a city where police resources are stretched thin and where those minor possession cases no longer result in jail time.

On Thursday, City Councilman Jim Kenney will introduce a bill that would cease custodial arrest. That's council-speak for no more jail time for small-time pot possession.

"To take an officer off the street for two hours or more, to fingerprint, photograph and book someone whose not going to be prosecuted anyway, seems to me a waste of time. It is a waste of time," Kenney said.

Instead, the offender would be ticketed, fined and sent to the district attorney's drug education classes.

It won't shock you to learn the measure has the full support of those who'd like to see pot legalized.

"Smoking marijuana or possessing a small amount of marijuana shouldn't be enough to get you put into handcuffs and taken to a police station any longer," Chris Goldstein of PhillyNORML said.

But the Kenney plan has also drawn interest from law enforcement types, who wonder whether police and prosecutors and jail cells are really necessary to handle the otherwise law-abiding kid with a joint in his pocket.

"I am not a proponent of legalization. l think I need to make that very clear. But certainly, if there are alternative ways of handling minor cases, then we need to take a look at it," Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said.

"This will allow us to treat non-violent misdemeanants in a smarter way. This is part of being smart on crime," D.A. Williams said.

Passage of this bill is far from certain no lawmaker wants to look soft on crime.

But Kenney says it's also a matter of public safety: if one of these pot possession arrests goes wrong, the offender, the police officer, even an innocent bystander, could get hurt or even killed. All over a case that wasn't going to result in jail time, anyway.

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