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Black adults 8 times as likely to be arrested for pot in Pa. as whites, study shows

Marijuana possession arrests in Pennsylvania, excluding Philadelphia, have increased by 33 percent since 2010 - and black adults have been arrested at a rate disproportionate to white adults that is rapidly increasing, a new study shows.

A marijuana plant growing in at a marijuana cultivation business in Adelanto, Calif.
A marijuana plant growing in at a marijuana cultivation business in Adelanto, Calif.Read moreIrfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Black adults in Pennsylvania were eight times more likely than white adults to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2016, according to an analysis released Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Compared with 2010, the study showed a substantial overall increase in marijuana possession arrests — even as the state legalizes medical marijuana, and national sentiment has moved toward acceptance of the drug. The disparity between arrests of black and white people also rose; it was 5.7-to-1 in 2011.

Those figures did not include Philadelphia, where a decriminalization measure was signed in 2014, and arrests were down 88 percent last year, compared with 2010. Even in the city, however, three times as many black adults were arrested as white.

"The simple fact to me is when you leave things up to being subjective, racial bias will prevail. I think these numbers show exactly that," said State Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Phila), a proponent of marijuana legalization, speaking at a Harrisburg news conference organized by the ACLU Monday.

The study, Harris and other advocates say, bolsters the argument for legalizing marijuana as a means to end the incarceration and the fining of people for pot offenses that they argue disproportionately affect people of color. Plus, taxpayers have shelled out more than $225 million since 2010 for marijuana enforcement, the study said.

Data shows that marijuana use is essentially equal across races. Yet in Bucks County in 2016, 1,400 black adults were arrested for marijuana possession per 100,000 compared with 200 white adults per 100,000. In Montgomery County, the figures were 1,200 black adults compared to fewer than 200 white adults per 100,000.

"The time is out for a war on drugs around marijuana that has been nothing but a war on people," Harris said. "You have folks who are being arrested for possession who are sitting in our county jail systems for a few days; they're losing their jobs; they're gaining criminal records, which then prevent them from becoming gainfully employed. Enough is enough."

"Legalizing something harmful never removes the harm," said state Sen. Matt Baker (R., Tioga).

In its report, the ACLU suggests that legalization is the only solution to ending the disproportionate crackdown on pot — eliminating "unnecessary jail time, fines, and license suspensions related to marijuana convictions" that can affect student loans, jobs, child custody battles, and immigration proceedings, the study said.

Opponents in Harrisburg of legalization, including medical marijuana legalization, have said it is a gateway drug or that it is dangerous.

A September poll of Pennsylvanians showed 59 percent in favor of legalization. But even as Pennsylvania's new medical grower-processors begin to get their operations off the ground — they are required to start producing medical marijuana by the end of December — pot busts are far from a thing of the past.

Pot possession arrests increased in 50 of the state's 67 counties between 2010 and 2016, the ACLU study said. More than eight of 10 of those arrests were for possession alone; arrests for marijuana sales decreased.

"It's surprising that as Pennsylvanians become more accepting of marijuana that possession arrests are actually going up. Certainly there are better ways for law enforcement to spend their time," said Andrew Hoover, legislative director for ACLU of Pennsylvania.

In 2010, the Pennsylvania State Police arrested 2,221 people for possession. In 2016, officers made 4,612 arrests. A spokesman for the state police said officers enforce the law as it is written and follow internal protocol that prohibits bias-based policing, along with receiving education about racial profiling awareness and prevention.

"An important part of our mission is to work to eliminate illegal drugs from our state," wrote spokesman Ryan Tarkowski in an email to The Inquirer and Daily News. "We have the resources in place to do so, so personnel are not stretched thin due to making arrests for marijuana possession."

The racial-disparity numbers in certain counties were even starker than the statewide figures. Black adults were 11 times more likely to be arrested for possession in Lawrence County and 16.6 times more likely in Indiana County.

Recreational marijuana is legal in eight states, while medical pot is allowed in 29 and in Washington D.C. A bill currently in the Pennsylvania House would make possession of a small amount of marijuana a summary offense, lower the maximum fine from $500 to $100, and eliminate imprisonment.

Measures such as that one represent "a positive incremental step," Hoover said, but the ACLU advocates for full legalization. Barring that, he said, any other changes would have to occur in individual police stations.

"Short of a change in state law, that's a city-by-city, town-by-town discussion that has to be had at the local level," he said.

Arguments for full legalization have gained steam as medical marijuana has been approved in more than half of U.S. states. In August, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey even introduced a bill in Congress to legalize marijuana federally.

"We have to change the mindset on who's actually smoked marijuana," Harris said. "I hate to break it to you, but from preschool teachers to presidents, even the ones who didn't inhale, people are smoking marijuana."