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Philly420: Pennsylvania's costly war on marijuana consumers

Chris Goldstein is a cannabis reform advocate and teaches the "Marijuana in the Media" class at Temple University's Journalism Department.  

There were 19,730 people arrested in Pennsylvania last year for having less than 30 grams of marijuana.

That is equal to heroin, cocaine, meth, opiates, and all other drug possession arrests combined, according to my new review of data in the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is spending his first few weeks in office reigniting the needless war on America's marijuana consumers. But prohibition is the business of  the local police and it's a real drain on budgets.

According to a RAND Corporation report, a single marijuana arrest costs $1,266 in Vermont.

That means Pennsylvania police departments may have spent up to $25 million tax dollars in 2016 catching people with a dime bag and glass pipe or someone with a pre-rolled joint.

When these otherwise law-abiding citizens get to Pennsylvania courts, taxpayers may spend another $1,000 per offender, or $20 million, on processing and supervision.

That's at least $45 million in taxes we might be wasting every year on busting people for weed ... during the biggest budget crunch in memory.

Some additional findings:

  1. A staggering 72% of people arrested in Pennsylvania for a small amount of pot are ages 18 to 29. (Put another way: Millennials make up 12,750 of the 19,730 weed arrests.)

  2. Women (3,512) were arrested more often for small amounts  of cannabis than possession of any other drug.

  3. The Pennsylvania State Police accounted for one quarter of all marijuana possession arrests (4,612); more than twice their arrests for heroin, meth, cocaine and all other drug possession combined.

  4. Troopers spent an estimated $5.8 million during 2016 performing arrests for marijuana.

District Attorneys and judges offer a wide array of outcomes from a plea to disorderly persons citations, expensive diversions, and even a full criminal convictions.

Philadelphia decriminalized marijuana and issues tickets for a code violation. The offenses are not crimes, there is no permanent record or chance of jail and supervision for the person cited.

Philly went from about 5,500 marijuana possession arrests every year down to less than 636 arrests in 2016. Just under 1,400 code violation notices were issued in 2015.

Meanwhile the Philadelphia police are catching more people with dangerous drugs such heroin and cocaine (3,775), flipping the statewide trends upside down, and saving about $4 million per year.

Pittsburgh and Harrisburg downgraded marijuana to a summary violation. Those are smart moves, but a summary is still a crime and comes with a five year record. It can be expunged, but it's not automatic and really requires hiring a lawyer.

That searchable record comes with years of negative consequences. Those consequences included lost employment, students loans or the chance at military service. With a record, parents can face custody issues and residents may have a tough time with some firearms permits.

Clearly, young adults bear the brunt of this marijuana enforcement focus. These college students and hard working members of our community are getting caught up in the criminal justice system right in their prime.

Editorial Boards at the Inquirer, Reading Eagle, York Daily Record, and newspapers across the Commonwealth have found common ground with many politicians and Gov. Wolf in supporting marijuana decriminalization.

State Rep. Barry Jozwiak (R., Berks), a former state trooper (pictured above), said last month that he would reintroduce a bill in Harrisburg that would reduce the penalty for most possession cases from a misdemeanor to a summary offense. That could be a vehicle for a tangible shift. Nineteen states have already pragmatically decriminalized cannabis including Delaware, Maryland and Washington D.C.

It could not happen at a better time. I have already been tracking a disturbing increase in Pennsylvania marijuana arrests – especially in Philly's suburbs — over the last three years.

There is no such thing as a war on marijuana — criminal enforcement is waged against people, not a plant.

A century of criminal prohibition has done nothing to deter the medical or recreational use of cannabis by hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians every day.

We are wasting Pennsylvania's tax and police resources on interdicting individual behavior that is perfectly legal in eight states and our nation's capital.

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