Friday, February 7, 2020
Deep dive into marijuana arrests in Pennsylvania provides reminder of local realities (and data challenges) of marijuana reforms
The Philadelphia Inquirer has this great new piece (with lots of local data in charts) exploring marijuana arrests in the Keystone State headlined "Marijuana arrests fall in Pa. But after many towns decriminalize, why hasn’t there been a bigger drop?". I recommend this piece in full, and here are excerpts:
Most of Pennsylvania’s largest cities have passed ordinances decriminalizing marijuana. And officially, penalties for possessing small amounts are like traffic tickets, with typical fines running from $25 to $500. In 2019, marijuana arrests — which often result in an onerous criminal record— declined in the Keystone State. But they remain greater than they were in 2009, before any city in Pennsylvania decriminalized possession of marijuana.
About 21,789 people were arrested in 2019 and charged for possessing less than 30 grams of cannabis, according to preliminary data released by the Pennsylvania State Police. Last year’s total marks a nearly 11 percent decline from the record 24,305 set in 2018.
City councils in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie, Allentown, Harrisburg, York, Lancaster, and most recently, Norristown, have all officially decriminalized possession of a small amounts of weed. “But we’re still arresting more people than we did 10 years ago,” said Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. “It’s lunacy.”
So why are there so many arrests? “It’s because police in many of those cities don’t follow the decriminalization statutes,” said Patrick Nightingale, a cannabis law attorney and advocate in Pittsburgh. “The statutes are not binding on police or the District Attorney’s offices. They’re voluntary. Police can still make arrests at their discretion.” City ordinances can’t repeal state or federal law. So even if a municipality passes a decriminalization ordinance, state law still says possession is illegal and a person can be arrested....
Another reason numbers remain high: Police may be muddying the data. As the Inquirer previously reported, suburban law enforcement agencies routinely report more arrests to the FBI than actual court cases. In participating in FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, the four counties in the Philadelphia suburbs reported that they arrested 5,400 people in 2017 for having pot. Yet the court records showed only 3,200 defendants faced criminal cases. Many police departments report an “arrest” any time officers stop someone and seize marijuana, even if no charges are filed or the person is not taken into custody....