In one year, the Small Amounts of Marijuana program has saved Philadelphia an estimated $2 million and thousands arrested for small possession from fines and imprisonment.
Under SAM, which was enacted in June 2010, those arrested for possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana can complete an educational class instead of face prosecution.
Before the program, “we were spending a lot of time, money and energy with no meaningful results” prosecuting small possession, said Jodi Lobel, deputy of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Pretrial Division. Lobel, a 1985 College graduate, said that SAM is a “better way to use our resources.”
Before SAM, the DA saw around 4,000 to 5,000 cases a year, usually only sentencing up to 30 days in jail or probation, plus a fine and a mark on their permanent criminal record for those caught with about $10 to $20 worth of marijuana, Lobel said. Now, defendants have the option to pay $200 and take a three-hour class that makes the offense then eligible to be expunged from their permanent records.
Small possession is still illegal and technically a misdemeanor, Lobel added. For small possession to be changed from a misdeameanor to a summary offense, state legislative action must be taken.
Although still a crime under law, the program has the same impact as decriminalization, said John Roman, who has lectured at Penn and is a Senior Research Associate at the Urban Institute as well as the executive director of the District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute.
Philadelphia saved money by sparing the resources of the police force, the court and the jails on those arrested for small possession, he added. In addition, many arrested don’t show up for their initial hearing, which can cause the defendant to pick up a more serious charge and waste even more of the justice system’s resources. “It’s probably a good thing,” he added.
Although SAM has saved the city money, some disagree with loosened restrictions on possession of marijuana for other reasons.
“I would absolutely tell you no,” marijuana should not be legalized, said Penn Med professor Manzar Ashtari, who has studied the effects of the drug on adolescents.
Ashtari’s studies have shown that marijuana has “a very bad effect” on white matter and the brain’s hippocampus — its memory center — in developing brains. Unrelated studies have shown negative effects in the brains of mature adults as well, she added.
“In my opinion, it is quite an abrasive drug,” Ashtari said.
Another drawback might be violence, which “certainly” exists in the marijuana market, Roman said. But he added that violence is not a major concern surrounding small possession of the drug.
Additionally, the numbers of arrest for small possession “are very similar to what they used to be,” before SAM, Lobel said, adding that people are still wary to break laws and those who complete SAM’s educational component will “think twice about harming their community.”
A rising College junior, who wished to remain anonymous due to the legal implications of dealing illegal substances, says that he has carried up to half a pound of marijuana at a time but has never had any legal problems.
“The law is always in the back of my mind,” he said, “but I don’t know that people are more or less inclined” to use the drug because of Philadelphia’s SAM program.
Although he believes marijuana should be consumed in moderation, he said the drug “has a stigma because the US government has pursued a policy of prohibition,” and he would like to see it legalized.
However, it is unlikely marijuana will be legalized in Philadelphia, let alone the state, anytime soon, Roman said. “My guess is [the City] has gone as far as they’re willing to go.”