Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

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....

Nevertheless, a regional organizer for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, called the decline in 2019′s total arrests “a profound shift.”  “Previously, there were steady annual increases in arrests for cannabis possession, while other drug arrests had plateaued,” said Chris Goldstein of NORML. “Now, for the first time in a decade, there is a clear downward trend in arresting marijuana consumers."

In Pennsylvania, more than 253,000 patients have registered for the medical marijuana program, although only 163,000 actually hold state-issued cards and are actively participating, according to the state Department of Health. There are currently 76 dispensaries — state-permitted marijuana retailers — open for business.

According to state activists, arrests are up in rural parts of the state and police are charging card-holding patients with possession.  “The odor of cannabis remains a probable cause for a search,” said Jeff Riedy, of the Lehigh Valley chapter of NORML.  “So medical marijuana is not an excuse to be let off.  If police smell pot in a car, they can arrest and charge for DUI.”


[Philadelphia] police dramatically reduced marijuana arrests, cutting cases in which possession is the most serious offense from about 5,600 in 2010 to just 621 last year, a drop of nearly 90 percent.  At the same time, city police have grown far more active in issuing citations for pot.  Officers handed out just 184 in 2014 — and about 2,850 for possession in 2018....


Andy Hoover, spokesperson for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, applauded the decline in arrests because it meant fewer cannabis consumers were tied up in the criminal system.  “That’s a positive,” Hoover said.  “The damage that is done when a person is arrested is significant, and it’s people of color who are disproportionately impacted, despite the fact that cannabis consumption is the same across races."   African Americans represent an estimated 40 percent of those arrested for marijuana in the region. 

“I apologize if this sounds simplistic, but one arrest is one too many for marijuana,” said Lt. Gov. Fetterman. “This idea that we would arrest, charge, prosecute and create a criminal record for anyone consuming a plant that is legal in a dozen states now is a waste of resources.”  Fetterman said arguments about whether police were over-counting arrests or not following city ordinances were missing the point.  “All this head-scratching and contemplation goes away if you make it legal,” he said.

Criminal justice developments and reforms, Who decides | Permalink


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