Philly420: How Pennsylvania can decriminalize marijuana
Chris Goldstein is a marijuana activist living in New Jersey.
Prohibition of marijuana is ending across the country but Pennsylvania is still arresting 18,000 people a year for holding less than 30 grams of pot.
Most of these cannabis enthusiasts avoid jail, yet face an expensive and often a long-term entanglement with the criminal justice system.
Gov. Tom Wolf has supported decriminalizing marijuana since he was on the campaign trail. Wolf reiterated that point last week during a radio interview on WITF, a public radio station in Harrisburg. It sparked a renewed statewide conversation.
What is decriminalization? It means a fine of less than $100, no record of the offense and absolutely no possibility of jail or supervision. It keeps offenders out of police cars, out of holding cells and out of courts.
To truly achieve that laudable goal it is important to understand that Pennsylvania's entire criminal code will require a much-needed modernization.
The lowest level of offense in Pennsylvania is a "summary offense" which is, technically, a criminal violation. It also comes with a record that can't be expunged for five years.
Downgrading marijuana possession to a summary offense is not the real answer. Civil violations need to be added statewide. That will take the legislature and the courts working together.
We don't need to look far afield for good examples of a different approach. Since 2014, Maryland and Delaware have both made the possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense.
Next month Philadelphia will mark the two-year anniversary of having code violation tickets instead of handcuffs for weed.
Here at Philly420 I've tracked the 80 percent drop in city marijuana arrests. They haven't disappeared entirely, and a disturbing racial disparity persists among those who are still hauled into custody for pot. But, police seem to have largely embraced the shift and issued about 1,300 tickets each year.
That's compared to decades where Philly posted more than 4,000 marijuana possession arrests every twelve months. It was expensive.
But Pittsburgh faced a major hurdle when it sought to emulate Philly's decriminalization policy. That's because, outside of Philadelphia, no other county or municipality in Pennsylvania has a structure to process fines or infractions without telling the courts.
If you get too many notices for failing to mow your lawn in Lancaster or too ny parking tickets in Reading you will end up in municipal, criminal court. And there will be a record.
It is that record for marijuana that all-too-often translates into years of additional punishment. That can cut off student loans, public housing, medical benefits, parental rights, employment, military service or even traveling abroad.
Pittsburgh could not find a way to stop the data from their weed tickets being transmitted to the Association of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) and generating the exact paper trail that the city pledged to avoid.
Philly used a process for the pot tickets that was already in place for sanitation violations, so nothing is ever reported to AOPC. Unpaid marijuana tickets are sent to a collections company not a court.
Because Pittsburgh didn't have that option, its council amended the ordinance to an "uncategorized violation of city code." A record is generated for weed tickets but without the word "marijuana."
It was an elegant solution but the notion that every city could simply follow Philly's lead was squelched.
On the heels of Gov Wolf's recent comments some prosecutors have taken pains to explain that they don't put casual pot smokers in jail. In most cases that is true. But some DA's certainly don't seem to mind having marijuana consumers in their purview.
Prosecutors have a tremendous amount of latitude on how they deal with these cases. A few DA's allow most marijuana offenders to plea to disorderly conduct ad hoc, while others take every one to court.
So treatment is not equal. Prosecutors also offer the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) for marijuana, but only to those who can afford it.
Generally ARD is a good deal for the offender, it allows a deferred sentence to lesser charge for good behavior. It turns out that ARD it's also in the financial interest of the county.
If someone is convicted of a state-level marijuana misdemeanor then the maximum fine is $500. Judges often impose less. That money is then split between many different county and state coffers.
If the offender takes ARD then they will shell out $1,000 to $1,500 in fines and fees. The bulk of that cash goes directly back to the counties.
Researching arrest data is easy. Finding out the outcome to every single case is much more difficult.
We don't know how many are offered a summary plea versus ARD or how many actually get convicted Exactly how many people end up serving some time in a Pennsylvania cell because they originally entered the system over a few grams of pot is also an unknown.
The District Attorneys should back up their claims and provide comprehensive data on the outcomes of all their marijuana possession dockets.
Here at Philly420 I did a county-by-county analysis of the arrest data from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System. Key findings:
- Ten counties in Pennsylvania accounted for 60 percent of the state's marijuana possession arrests last year.
- Philadelphia arrests massively declined from 4,374 in 2013 down to 784 in 2015.
- There are almost twice as many arrests in Pennsylvania for less than 30 grams of marijuana (18,238) than for possession of heroin and cocaine combined (11,112). In some counties, like York, marijuana possession arrests were five times those for other drugs.
We use every resource in our criminal justice system against those who consume cannabis: Police, labs, holding cells, prosecutors, courts and yes, sometimes even prisons. And, of course, there are fines.
A conservative estimate is that counties and municipalities in Pennsylvania spend $40 million a year enforcing marijuana laws. That's money could be spent battling opiate addiction.
Creating civil violations statewide is the only way to truly decriminalize marijuana. It may also be the quickest way to shift resources to deal with the most serious problems facing our communities.