On a recent sunny weekday morning in Center City Philadelphia, a man in a wheelchair decided to spark up a blunt.
But the marijuana smoker’s pleasure was interrupted by police officers who clearly saw him smoking near the SEPTA entrance on the northwest corner of 15th and Market streets.
Despite their complaints, officers took the blunt and issued tickets to the man and his friends. But as they did, they joked that the man and his friends would be back there the next day and the day after that doing the same thing.
“Now it’s just a fine, but it’s bulls--- because nobody pays the fine,” one cop joked.
One officer was fine with the situation, but the other wasn’t, and the cause of his anger was clearly indicated by his finger pointing at City Hall across the street as he spoke: "This is his fault. Kenney did it for the votes.”
Indeed, the police officers, who did not want to be identified, were right about the how little respect there is for criminal fines for marijuana under decriminalization laws that took effect in 2014.
According to city stats, there have been about 2,853 marijuana citations issued, 22 percent of those for public use, the rest for possession.
Out of $119,010 in fines issued, potheads have only paid back a piddling $30,085, less than 25 percent of the total.
Dazed and confused yet? Try this on for size: the mayor’s office doesn’t really seem to care.
“The goal isn’t revenue, it’s to keep people out of the criminal justice system because of a low-level offense, which decriminalization achieves,” said Lauren Hitt, spokeswoman for mayor Jim Kenney. She pointed out debt-dodgers would still end up in the same collection process as normal code violation notices.
Kenney’s not alone. Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday that he supports decriminalizationn and that he wants the state to significantly cut marijuana arrests. Earlier this year he signed a law legalizing medical marijuana, although it won't be available in the state until 2018.
In Philly, marijuana fines are $25 for possession of up to 30 grams (an ounce) of marijuana and $100 for smoking in public since October 2014. The law was changed by former Mayor Michael Nutter with strong support from then-Councilman Kenney.
At the time the laws changed, Philly cops were locking up an estimated 4,000 adults and youths annually for pot possession and use, the vast majority of them African American.
Marijuana legalization advocate Chris Goldstein estimated that decriminalization saves the police department more than $4 million a year in manpower cost.
“Philadelphia might not get $50 grand in collected fines, but it saved a lot in having more police officers on the street,” he said.
Goldstein calculated the $4 million figured based on a Rand Corp study in Vermont that found weed arrests cost $1,266 in man-hours compared to about $20 for the ticket.
“We’ve saved tens of thousands of hours of beat police time in the city. It’s really hard to put a value on that,” Goldstein said.
Back when he was lobbying for the law, then-councilman Kenney blasted the general policy of arresting people for marijuana and estimated cops spent 17,000 hours a year on weed arrests.
With that little money coming in through fines, Philly pot advocate N.A. Poe said the low pay rate shows the city should just cut fines and citations altogether.
“Why not take the next step? Let’s get rid of the fine,” he said.
Poe believes the weed citations and confiscation by police still create negative encounters with the public, and argued fines probably aren’t being paid because the people getting them are predominately black and poor.
“The reason it’s not getting paid is because the numbers are still skewed racially. You’re citing more lower income people for the pot,” he said. “I personally want to avoid that whole thing. That takes you down to broken windows policing, the stop and frisk avenue."
Five more states have full marijuana legalization on the ballot this November, and the measures are expected to pass in all five -- Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada.
Goldstein supports full legalization and said that while gradual legalization may create changes for police officers used to locking up pot smokers, it’s part of a nationwide shift in attitudes on the drug.
“They’re observing the real effect of decriminalization. It’s accomplished something quite profound. It’s removed fear in prohibition,” Goldstein said. “Police are seeing that. It might be a little uncomfortable for them, but again, they were arresting themselves out of jobs.”