Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly420: Gov. Wolf's marijuana decrim could save Pa. millions

Wolf said the criminalization of pot rips families apart.

Gov. Wolf campaigned on the concept of decriminalizing marijuana statewide. Last week, he reinforced his support for the issue again to WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh:

"There are a lot of reasons to look at decriminalization. I think that's something that I support," he said.

Wolf said the criminalization of this drug is ripping families apart.

"I believe, for a number of reasons, that we ought to decriminalize marijuana use. I think our prisons are over-crowded as a result of people going to jail for reasons that, you know, we break up families for reasons that we shouldn't," Wolf said.

As Philly420 previously reported, the new decrim procedure in Philadelphia has produced a sharp decline in arrests and is on track to the save the city more than $3 million this year.

According to at least one political analyst, the change championed by then-councilman Jim Kenney also helped to propel him to winning the Democratic primary for mayor.

"[Pollster Anna] Greenberg said her polling showed that marijuana decriminalization was a breakthrough issue for Kenney, communicating to black voters that he understood the impact of harsh drug laws and unequal enforcement in minority communities."

An innovation in the Philly civil citations is that they also apply to juveniles. This makes sense. There is no reason that residents under the age of 18 should receive harsher treatment than adults for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

So what would happen if Wolf's vision was realized for the entire Commonwealth?

In Pennsylvania during 2013 there were 17,964 adults and 2,724 juveniles arrested for a small amount of weed, for a total of 20,688. This is official data directly from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting system.

Each arrest costs $1,266, according to a RAND Corporation study. That means $26.2 million was spent arresting residents for possessing less than 30 grams of cannabis in 2013 alone.

A vast majority of these arrests are performed by municipal police. This puts the cost burden on local budgets. Still, Pennsylvania State Police troopers arrested 2,630 adults and juveniles for pot in 2013. Not an insignificant number.

If decrim were adopted statewide, arrests likely will quickly decline at the same rate we have seen in Philly. That means towns and cities will, collectively, save more than $18.3 million in a single year. State Police will save more than $2 million on their own.

For some communities this could be a real windfall to their public safety budgets. For example, Allentown city police performed 336 marijuana possession arrests in 2013. Those arrests cost $425,000. Any city in the state could do with an extra half a million dollars.

Philadelphia's civil citation structure of $25 fines for possession and $100 for public smoking have been a resounding success. From October to April, data from the city's Office of Administrative Review shows police issued 399 possession tickets and 55 public use tickets. That's about how many people used to be put into handcuffs in a single month for weed.

Decriminalization is a logical and pragmatic step. It stops the harsh consequences of a permanent criminal record holding citizens back from jobs, military service, college loans or housing.

Yet, it has been frustrating to watch the intense politics from legislators in Harrisburg on even allowing seriously ill residents legal access to medical cannabis. Are they capable or more expansive criminal justice changes?

That said, marijuana decrim is a simple fix: change one word of the current statute from "misdemeanor" to "summary."

Marijuana reform is a positive step forward on the streets and in our tax-funded budgets. As Kenney's primary success shows, it also wins elections.

Still, Gov. Wolf may need to take executive action to cut the red tape. Until full legalization comes to the Keystone State we can, at least, stop arresting cannabis consumers.

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and co-chair of PhillyNorml. Contact him at