Philadelphia city council votes to decriminalize pot possession

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The Philadelphia City Council on Thursday passed a measure decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, following a wave of U.S. states and cities lowering penalties on the drug.

The city council voted 13-to-3 to make possession of less than one ounce (30 grams) of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine. The approval vote carried a wide enough margin to override a possible veto by Mayor Michael Nutter, who has not taken a clear position.

“It is obviously a complicated piece of legislation,” Nutter told the local CBS television affiliate. “Concerns have been expressed by Police Commissioner (Charles) Ramsey, DA Seth Williams, and representatives in our court system. So we’ll read through the legislation.”

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but a growing number of state and local governments have moved to treat possession no more seriously than a traffic ticket.

Fifteen states and 35 cities across the country have passed decriminalization laws, with Washington, D.C., in March approving a measure similar to Philadelphia’s, also imposing a $25 fine for possession.

Noting that Philadelphia police arrest about 4,000 people per year for possessing small amounts of pot, proponents of the measure say it will save the city millions of dollars on lab tests, police overtime and jail costs while allowing officers to devote more time to serious crime.

Proponents of decriminalization have noted that African-Americans are roughly five times more likely that whites to be arrested for possession, though there is no evidence that the two populations use marijuana at different rates.

Since 2010, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has treated marijuana possession as a summary offense, avoiding trials and the need for attorneys for defendants who agree to three-hour educational course on the impact of drugs in the community.

Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler