Despite marijuana’s increasing legalization and acceptance, arrests soar
While Philadelphia has largely decriminalized marijuana possession, police in South Jersey and in the city's Pennsylvania suburbs are charging more people than ever with the crime. For some, critics say, that means they run a kind of gantlet from suburban town to suburban town.
Corey Thornton admits he gave little thought to the marijuana in his car as he drove along Germantown Pike near the Plymouth Meeting Mall in March.
He was heading home to Philadelphia, where police have essentially decriminalized marijuana possession — no longer arresting thousands a year for pot but issuing a like number of $25 civil citations instead.
"I'm not going to say that I'm not aware that it's illegal," said Thornton, 49, a restaurant manager. But "it's not frowned upon as some of the other things going around."
Thornton got his rude awakening when Plymouth Township police pulled him over because officers said they could smell marijuana as they drove behind him. Police confiscated a joint and three vials of marijuana.
With that midday bust, Thornton became an unwitting participant in a surprising regional phenomenon: Despite the nation's growing acceptance of marijuana, police in the Philadelphia suburbs and in South Jersey are making more and more pot arrests.
Officers in the four suburban Pennsylvania counties next to Philadelphia arrested 3,100 people for marijuana possession last year — an 11 percent increase from the year before, court records show.
The trend is even more pronounced in South Jersey. In Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties, pot arrests jumped 40 percent from 2015 to 2016, the most recent years for which county figures are available.
The Inquirer's review shows that African Americans make up an increasing share of those facing pot charges. Blacks are an estimated 40 percent of those arrested for marijuana in the region, even though they make up only 12 percent of the combined population of South Jersey and the city's Pennsylvania suburbs.
Area police, prosecutors, and defense lawyers offer a range of explanations for the surge in marijuana arrests, which can saddle people with criminal records, hefty fines and legal bills, a suspended driver's license, and trouble with employers.
In both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, recent state Supreme Court rulings have made it markedly easier for police to search for marijuana. The high courts in both states have decreed that police only need smell the pungent odor of weed to conduct an immediate search — without the need for a warrant from the judge. "It opened the floodgates," said Eric Morrell, a defense lawyer based in New Brunswick, N.J.
Some police commanders say they have stepped up drug enforcement overall to tackle the opioid epidemic, and marijuana arrests are up accordingly.
Other commanders, backed up by a number of defense lawyers, assert that the growing cultural acceptance of pot has, ironically, helped fuel the boom in arrests. As more jurisdictions such as Philadelphia have begun treating marijuana with leniency, the argument goes, people have become more flagrant in its use, leading to more busts.
"There is a disconnect," said Abington Police Chief Patrick Molloy. "So many people, they hear what happened in Philadelphia and they think the entire state decriminalized it."
Gary Lomanno, a South Jersey defense lawyer, sees the same attitude.
"I hear it from people, 'It's only a little pot — what's the big deal?' I hear it constantly," Lomanno said. "You don't know how many people come in and say it's legal."
Attitudes in flux
There is no doubt that the country's attitude toward marijuana is undergoing rapid, sometimes confusing, change.
In the nation's capital, President Trump and his attorney general have been at odds over the liberalization of marijuana laws, with Trump adopting a more tolerant view. Nine states have legalized recreational use, and in New Jersey, Gov. Murphy said this week that his state will likely join them, "sooner than later." Thirty states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, now permit the sale of marijuana for medical purposes.
Philadelphia was a leader among big cities in taking a more tolerant approach to people possessing small amounts of marijuana, a trend that climaxed in a 2014 city ordinance championed by then-City Councilman Jim Kenney that cleared the way for police to issue noncriminal citations for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
As a result, Philadelphia police dramatically reduced marijuana arrests, cutting cases in which possession is the most serious offense from 5,600 in 2010 to just 759 last year, a drop of more than 85 percent. At the same time, city police have grown far more active in issuing citations for pot. Officers handed out just 184 in 2014 — and 4,200 last year.
Marijuana possession has been all but decriminalized in large swathes of Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Allentown, York, Erie, and State College. Even so, pot arrests are way up statewide. They hit 23,000 last year, a 15 percent increase in one year.
The same has happened in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties. In all four counties, misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession rose last year, led by Montgomery County's 28 percent jump, according to an Inquirer analysis of court records.
Some township police forces have resisted the trend. In Cheltenham, police arrested only 18 people for pot possession last year. Its arrest tally has been similarly low for years. And some departments, including Abington, Cheltenham's neighbor, have quietly adopted a policy of handing out citations, rather than making arrests.
In 2014, the same year Philadelphia took its big step toward relaxing pot enforcement, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that gave police much greater freedom to search when they smelled pot. The ruling abolished the need for police to obtain court approval for searches.
Philadelphia lawyer Alan Tauber, who lost the case before the high court, said the opinion has emboldened police in Pennsylvania.
"Any time you give police further access to search they'll take it," he said. "People live their lives in their cars."
The following year, the state Supreme Court in New Jersey similarly relaxed controls on searches.
Michele Finizio, a defense attorney based in Moorestown, said the New Jersey high court ruling had paved the way for many more car searches. "It's a really good weapon for them," she said.
In the Garden State, police made 32,000 marijuana-possession arrests in 2016, the last year for which statewide figures are available. That was a whopping 7,400 jump from 2015, the year of the court ruling.
A year after the decision, pot arrests in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties surged. Arrests have been on the rise in three-quarters of the region's communities. Notably, in Burlington County's Mount Laurel Township, arrests tripled to 114 from 2010 to 2016. Deptford Township in Gloucester County saw its total climb to 249 arrests from 93 six years earlier.
Mount Laurel's deputy police chief, Judy Lynn Schiavone, said her force had beefed up enforcement in recent years, including adding drug-sniffing dogs. Most arrests are made at the numerous hotels in the township, and do not involve local residents, she said.
Mount Laurel's police policy was to give no slack to those found with weed.
"If there's any kind of downgrade or dismissal, that's going to happen in court, because it's still illegal and we treat it as such," Schiavone said.
In both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, suspects very rarely face jail time for a conviction on the charge of marijuana possession. Probation is the typical punishment.
But the resultant criminal record can dog someone for a long time. New Jersey requires at least a three-year wait before someone can request that a conviction be wiped from the record. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf just signed a bill to automatically seal such criminal records — after 10 years.
While many defendants can get reduced charges or win admission to diversionary programs that promise a clean record, they must still reckon with lengthy delays and expensive fees and legal bills should they seek to expunge damaging information from their official record. One heavily used diversionary program in New Jersey, for instance, has an $833 admission fee.
Miles Ziskind, 28, a rock-band drummer from South Philadelphia, learned about those costs the hard way.
Ziskind was arrested in New Jersey in August when police pulled over the van carrying him and his bandmates home from a show. The van with a broken taillight and headlight was an easy target. Police found two grams of marijuana and a corncob pipe in his fanny pack. Ziskind, who was not driving, was cuffed at the scene and taken to the police station for processing.
Unable to afford a lawyer, Ziskind made what he sees now as a mistake. He enrolled in the conditional discharge program, was put on probation, and had a fine whose total now staggers him.
"I don't have $833 to drop," he said.
Still, some suburban police departments, much like their counterparts in Philadelphia, have taken steps to soften the blow of a marijuana arrest.
"We're very sensitive that people can get a criminal record for something they sell right down the street" at a medical cannabis dispensary, said Molloy, the Abington chief.
With little publicity, suburban police in many cases have been confiscating marijuana, but otherwise letting suspects go or only giving them a citation for disorderly conduct. Disorderly conduct is a summary offense, essentially a ticket, less serious than a misdemeanor.
To demonstrate Abington's lenient approach, Molloy shared an in-house study of how his department has handled marijuana stops. Of about 400 incidents in 2016 in which police seized pot, he said, officers let 75 suspects go with a warning and gave 250 disorderly-conduct citations. About 60 were charged with the misdemeanor crime of marijuana possession.
Police in Lower Merion also are far more likely to issue a disorderly-conduct citation than make an arrest for pot possession. The township police superintendent, Michael McGrath, said this reflected pressure from county judges who were annoyed when marijuana cases popped up on their docket, only to be downgraded later to lesser charges.
"I can't tell you how long ago the courts said don't bring people in for misdemeanors on small amounts," McGrath said.
Critics question this unpublicized agenda in the suburbs to downgrade many stops, asking what prompts police to send some drivers on the way with just a ticket, but to arrest others. "There is a capricious and arbitrary nature to this that plays out every day," said Chris Goldstein, an area organizer with NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
"I don't have a problem with police officers giving a break," said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. At the same time, she said, "it raises questions about fairness."
As arrests have increased in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, African Americans are making up an increasing share of those busted.
In Pennsylvania, police reported arresting 7,600 black people for pot possession last year. African Americans made up a third of all such arrests, although they make up only 12 percent of the state's population. The racial disparity in arrests is much the same across New Jersey. And the disparity in both states has widened.
Across Philadelphia's four adjacent Pennsylvania counties, blacks made up almost 40 percent of those facing charges of marijuana possession last year — even though only one in 10 of the residents are African American.
In Montgomery County, where figures are available for longer-term trends, police brought a lead charge of marijuana possession — the most serious charge defendants faced — against 200 African Americans in 2012. Last year, they filed the charge against 382 black defendants. During that five-year span, the number of blacks arrested grew three times as fast as the white count.
The shifting racial picture is the same in South Jersey. Pot-possession arrests of African Americans more than doubled in the three counties closest to Philadelphia in this decade. The number of white arrests increased but not as much, by 44 percent.
Last year, the ACLU of New Jersey issued a report critical of the racial disparities in arrests. Safeer Quraishi, administrative director of the NAACP of New Jersey, said his organization was also troubled by the figures.
"What we know factually is that marijuana usage rates among all ethnicities are essentially the same," he said. "The reason the NAACP is involved with the marijuana issue is that we're seeing a statewide phenomenon where people of color are three times more likely to be arrested and convicted of a marijuana-possession charge. And in some municipalities that can go as high as 26-1."
Several defense lawyers said that the targeting likely reflected economics, not race.
"I think it's class based," said Wana Saadzoi, a former assistant district attorney in Delaware County who now works as a defense attorney. "The police are not pulling over an affluent black man or woman in parts of Devon if they're driving a $150,000 vehicle."
In Abington, half of all those charged with pot-possession arrests last year were of African Americans.
Chief Molloy, who took over the Abington department in February, said race had nothing to do with his officers' decisions as to whom to arrest.
In response to criticism, Abington conducted a visual survey of the race of drivers on two major thoroughfares in 2016, finding that 40 percent were black, which is more than twice the African American share of the township population. Two-thirds of all marijuana-possession arrests were of nonresidents, he added. These facts help explain the relatively high number of blacks stopped by his police, he said.
Thornton, the restaurant manager arrested in March, is African American. He wonders whether his color played any role in his arrest in Plymouth Township in Montgomery County.
"I would hate to say that race played a part, but anything is possible," he said.
Plymouth Township police greatly increased arrests for marijuana possession in 2017, after holding busts steady in previous years. African Americans make up nearly 60 percent of those arrested since 2017.
Township Police Chief Joseph F. Lawrence says race was not a factor.
"I have some younger officers, they're a little bit more aggressive when they're younger," Lawrence said. "They want to get their hands dirty."
He added: "I would bet that a lot of the increase is from motor-vehicle stops. We're not Philadelphia or Norristown — we don't have people sitting on their doorsteps smoking."
Staff writer Michele Tranquilli contributed to this article.