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Philly420: Racial disparities continue in Philly marijuana arrests

Arrests for marijuana possession in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania were largely unchanged in 2013 compared to 2012. Yet, striking racial disparities in cannabis arrests continue in the city, a trend replicated in most urban environments.

This week PhillyNORML conducted an annual review of marijuana arrests with data gathered directly from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System (UCRS).  The crime database for the Keystone State is one of only two in the country that are fully public.  PhillyNORML's full report will be released next week.

By the numbers

During 2013 in Pennsylvania there were 17,964 marijuana possession arrests of adults and 2,724 arrests of juveniles for a total of 20,688.

During the same year in Philadelphia there were 3,773 arrests for marijuana possession with an additional 563 arrests of juveniles for a total of 4,336.

Summons are issued in most Pennsylvania counties for marijuana possession. This was the case for Pittsburgh Steelers Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount in Ross County. State law gives discretion to local police whether to perform a custodial arrest or to send a summons in the mail.

Philadelphia is the only county that puts every single offender into handcuffs and a holding cell -- for any amount of marijuana.

City Council passed a bill in June with a vote of 13-3 to change that practice. Bill 140377, sponsored by Councilman Jim Kenney, makes marijuana possession a code violation instructing police issue a $25 ticket.

It could have been implemented right away but Mayor Nutter has the option of waiting until Sept. 10 to approve or veto the measure. By saying he is studying the issue, he appears to be running out the clock.

Last weekend I had an exchange with Nutter's Chief of Staff, Everett Gillison, on Twitter about the bill. Gillison said that an announcement would come "on or before" September 10th but declined to indicate if Nutter would sign. There are enough votes in Council to override any attempt at a veto.

If signed the bill has a 90-day implementation phase to allow time to print new tickets and train police officers about the policy change.

Color coding

During 2013, the adults arrested for marijuana possession in Philly were 83.3 percent African American. Just 15.4 percent were white.

The disparity carried over to the sale/manufacture arrests as well.

Interestingly, the possession arrests for heroin and cocaine combined were almost exactly 50/50. Whites comprised 50.1 percent of the 4,244 arrests for cocaine and heroin possession. The even split was almost replicated for arrests regarding the sale/manufacture of the hard drugs as well.

Still, it is important to note that across the state far more white people were busted for possessing pot: 57.4 percent of adult possession arrests were white.

Overall Philadelphia accounted for 20.2 percent of all the marijuana possession arrests in Pennsylvania. But Philly accounted for 42.6 percent of all the African Americans arrested in the state and the city put them all into immediate custody.

A look through other crime information from drunkenness and disorderly conduct to theft and DUI did not reveal the same disparities as seen for marijuana.

Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey and Mayor Nutter have said the disparities exist because of increased patrols in communities of color. But other offenses, especially those for heroin and cocaine should look the same rather than being almost exactly racially equal.

The City Paper recently mapped every marijuana arrest in the city from 2010-2013. It showed huge swaths of primarily black neighborhoods of the city as having the heaviest concentrations of the arrests. But, zooming in, it also showed a lot of Hispanics and African Americans getting busted in what are known to be paler residential and shopping districts.

Men far outpaced women in arrests by a nearly 8-to-1 ratio. Young people also bore the brunt of enforcement. More than 40 percent of the adults arrested were age 18-29. Almost 75 percent of the juveniles arrested were 16- and 17-years-old.

White and Asian women remained the least likely to be arrested for marijuana in Philadelphia.


Consuming cannabis is about equally popular among African Americans and caucasians. In fact, when it comes to those age 35 and older, white cannabis consumers outnumber every other ethnicity. Even factoring in the pervasive and largely unconstitutional practice of Stop-and-Frisk it is difficult to explain why enforcement is so skewed.

When Massachusetts decriminalized marijuana possession arrests fell almost 80 percent.

Significant pressure is building for Nutter to enact the decriminalization bill from Council and direct the Police Department to follow through on the new procedure. The Inquirer Editorial Board and WHYY's News Director Chris Satullo even opined in favor of the measure.

When September 10th rolls around, judging by past numbers, about 700 residents will have been thrown into jail over a small amount of cannabis since City Council passed the bill. Hopefully there won't be many more.

Contact Chris Goldstein at