Court tosses out city’s tobacco-sales ordinance

A narrowly divided state Supreme Court has voided a 4-year-old city ordinance that was designed to curtail the use of cigars, cigarettes, rolling papers and other tobacco products as vehicles for marijuana and other illegal drugs, the court announced Thursday.

The state’s high court ruled 4-3 that the ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Brian O’Neill, was inconsistent with state law regulating tobacco products and drug paraphernalia.

The Pennsylvania law has a broad prohibition against the sale of any paraphernalia used to grow, harvest, package or use illegal drugs. But prosecutions are limited to situations in which the seller knows or “reasonably should know” that the buyer intends to use the paraphernalia illegally.

DA Seth Williams (left) eased penalties in Philadelphia for the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use last year. On Thursday, the Supreme Court struck down a city ban on the sale of tobacco products that can also be used to smoke pot.

DA Seth Williams (left) eased penalties in Philadelphia for the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use last year. On Thursday, the Supreme Court struck down a city ban on the sale of tobacco products that can also be used to smoke pot.

The city ordinance – challenged by a group of tobacco distributors as soon as it was signed, and essentially never enforced – prohibited the sales of various tobacco products no matter what the seller knew about their intended use.

It would have barred the sales of “loosies” – individual cigars or cigarettes sold one or two at a time – along with cigar or cigarette rolling papers and flavored-tobacco items.

Council’s ordinance included language stating that the measure was designed “to correct and control a . . . growing trend among Philadelphia youth and others to purchase cigars, empty the tobacco from those cigars, and substitute marijuana and/or stronger illegal drugs into the cigar wrapping.”

Cigars costing at least $1 were exempt from the single-sale ban, and the ordinance allowed continued sales of single cigars, cigarettes and rolling papers by hotels, specialty tobacco stores and restaurants with at least 25 seats.

But within 500 feet of a school, recreation center, church, day care or community center, any sales of loosies or rolling papers were prohibited.

The Supreme Court opinion voiding the ordinance was written by a justice from Philadelphia, Seamus McCaffery, joined by J. Michael Eakin and Max Baer, with a concurring opinion from Thomas Saylor.

Chief Justice Ronald Castille dissented, joined by Debra Todd and Joan Orie Melvin.

Councilman O’Neill did not returns calls for comment, but Councilman Darrell Clarke, another supporter of the ban, criticized the decision as “basically supporting the illegal use of drugs.”

Clarke, who has proposed a number of city gun regulations that the court has struck down, said it was frustrating that the city does not always have jurisdiction over its own problems.

“Some of these rulings on the judicial level are just mind-blowing,” he said.

A spokesman for Mayor Nutter said the administration is “disappointed” by the decision.

But for those who purchase and sell single cigars, the Supreme Court’s decision was a relief.

“It’s better single for two reasons: one, people don’t have enough to buy the pack and it’s cheaper to buy single cigars than the pack itself,” said Jose Rodriguez, who works at a deli on Chestnut Street near Farragut in West Philadelphia where people often purchase single cigars.

“A lot of people would [rather] smoke than eat. It’s sad.”

Then there’s the reason that O’Neill pushed the measure in the first place: Some people admit to buying single cigars to empty of tobacco and fill with marijuana.

A man who identified himself only as C.J., 31, of University City said he started smoking marijuana about three months ago and, since then, he buys two or three single cigars a day.

“Putting a law on a product, it’s like pennies on the dollar, it’s never going to catch up,” he said, a flavored cigar in his hand, likely to soon be filled with marijuana.

source: philly.com

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