Philadelphia’s District Attorney recently proposed a new policy that would decrease the criminal grading for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The DA’s proposal would downgrade possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a summary offense. This lower grading would mean a possible fine for possession, but the offense would not be included in a criminal record.
The University’s policy on marijuana use, however, will remain unchanged, according to Director of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives Julie Lyzinski. The University Alcohol and Drug Policy states that first-time violators can face jail time or fines for “possession or distribution of a small amount of marijuana or hashish.”
“It is still illegal. The only impact this change will have on Penn students will be if they have a court case and face legal sanctions through the city,” Lyzinski wrote in an e-mail.
A student who wished to remain anonymous to protect her reputation described a first-hand experience with the University’s policy. On April 20, 2009, she and some friends were smoking marijuana in a dorm when a residential advisor smelled the smoke.
“The guy I was with started freaking out and threw his piece out of the window. When the RA came down, he asked us if we were smoking, and the guy said, ‘Yeah, I threw it out the window.’”
The student said the RA took down their names and PennCard information and called the house dean, who “scolded” the group. “But nothing ever came from it,” she added.
Under Penn policy, students “can face a number of possible outcomes from judicial sanctions […] to educational opportunities,” Lyzinski said.
According to Dan Filler, a criminal law expert and senior associate dean for academic and faculty affairs at the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University, less judgmental perceptions of marijuana and political maneuvering precipitated the new policy.
“There’s been an ongoing move toward legalization for medical uses,” Filler said, citing a New Jersey law decriminalizing medical marijuana.
According to Filler, Philadelphia DA Seth Williams has been able to take advantage not only of public perception but also a budget crisis, fueled in large part by criminal justice expenditures. This is in line with his campaign as a “more pragmatic” DA in tune with community needs, Filler added.
“You have a new district attorney who’s taking over after a very long term that was served by a DA that used a super tough-on-crime, no-holds-barred approach,” Filler said.
Filler added that the new policy was unlikely to provoke objection from Philadelphians, giving Williams a chance to fulfill a campaign promise to focus on serious crime.
“In Philadelphia County, I don’t think a ton of people would look at him and say, ‘Oh wow, that’s seriously irresponsible,’” Filler said. “So he gets to deliver something at a relatively low cost.”
Filler emphasized, however, that Philadelphia and Pennsylvania hold extremely different views. “We’re a long way off from seeing a real change” in state possession law, he said, adding that a nationwide trend toward legalization is also possible but far off.
“The day in which [Congressmen] say, ‘You know what, we don’t want this to be an issue of federal law anymore — states, you decide’ — that will be a day when we’ll all take notice,” Filler said.
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