Pubdate: Sat, 20 Jun 2015
Source: Tribune Review (Pittsburgh, PA)
Copyright: 2015 Tribune-Review Publishing Co.
Author: Evan Sanders


The state Senate approved a bill in May that would allow residents to 
use of medically prescribed marijuana, but it faces a tough fight in 
the House. If the bill passes, Pennsylvania will join 23 states and 
the District of Columbia in allowing medical marijuana.

As police combat an epidemic of heroin overdoses, fewer people are 
landing in jail in Pennsylvania for possessing marijuana, a 
reflection of a change in battle tactics and attitudes about the 
drug, experts say.

"oeThe nation is clearly taking a long, hard look at this. ... 
There's blowback on the war on drugs,"  said Tony Gaskew, a former 
drug agent and director of the University of Pittsburgh's criminal 
justice program. "oeIs it cost effective? We cannot arrest every 
person that wants to get high."

More than 4,900 people were jailed in Pennsylvania last year on drug 
charges involving marijuana, a nearly 5 percent decrease from the 
5,157 people sentenced in pot-related cases in 2013, according to the 
Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. Meanwhile, jail sentences for 
heroin increased more than 30 percent, from 3,527 in 2013 to 4,693.

It's a trend experts expect to continue.

As the death toll from heroin rises, marijuana moves lower on 
priority lists, police say.

"oeWe do have to prioritize,"  said Tony Marcocci, a Westmoreland 
County detective who spent three decades in the trenches of the war 
on drugs. "oeSometimes it's a difficult decision. Do I investigate a 
kid who's smoking marijuana or one who's selling heroin?"

Although heroin has dominated recent headlines in Western 
Pennsylvania, Marcocci said authorities are battling a lot of other 
deadly drugs, including methamphetamine, crack cocaine and Molly, a 
hallucinogenic mix of Ecstasy, meth and other chemicals.

"oeWe have our hands full. ... It's complete insanity on our 
streets,"  he said. "oeEvery day it's something new. We try to be 
proactive, but we're becoming reactive."


Across the nation, marijuana-related arrests have declined while 
heroin arrests have increased, FBI statistics show.

In 2011, the FBI said 15.6 percent of the more than 1.5 million drug 
arrests were for heroin, compared with 48.5 percent for marijuana. By 
2013, the percentage of arrests for heroin had increased to 17.4 
percent and marijuana arrests dipped to 45 percent.

"oeI agree that local law enforcement is not treating cannabis as a 
priority. ... I cannot recall the last time I represented a client 
who was actually arrested for possessing a small amount of 
marijuana," said Patrick Nightingale, an attorney and executive 
director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization for 
the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"oeIf it lands in their lap, they'll pursue it,"  he said. "oebut 
they just don't have the time to deal with smaller amounts."

That reflects part of a national dialogue about how police make drug 
arrests, Gaskew said "" not intentionally making fewer arrests but 
re-evaluating how they go about them.

"oeIs making a simple drug possession arrest solely on marijuana 
worth it?"  asked Gaskew, who served on the Organized Crime Drug 
Enforcement Task Force, the centerpiece of the Department of 
Justice's drug strategy.

The shift in strategy concerns people fighting to keep marijuana off 
the streets. They say police need to remain vigilant because 
marijuana can be a gateway to other drugs and it is more powerful 
today than the version sold in the 1960s.

"oeIt concerns me on a lot of levels. ... The perception of 
harmfulness has been falling,"  said Eric Voth, a Kansas internist 
and chairman of the Institute on Global Drug Policy, a national 
alliance of physicians, scientists, attorneys and drug specialists 
pushing public policies to curtail the use of illicit drugs.

"oeNone of the people addicted to heroin started on heroin,"  said 
Carla D. Lowe, founder of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, a 
group founded in California five years ago to fight legalization.


One police chief said he can't ignore that marijuana remains illegal 
in Pennsylvania.

"oeIf you pass up arresting someone (possessing marijuana) because it 
has been decriminalized in some other states, or because of some 
personal feeling, I believe that is a very slippery slope. If 
anything, if a department around here is reporting more heroin 
arrests than marijuana arrests, I personally believe the reason is 
because heroin is more readily available,"  said Southwest Regional 
Police Chief John Hartman, whose Belle Vernon-based department serves 
Newell in Fayette County and towns in Washington and Greene counties.

Prioritizing makes sense for police departments strapped with tight 
budgets, "oebut it is also indicative of the increasing majority of 
Americans who want marijuana prohibition to end,"  said Morgan Fox, 
spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington""based group 
working to increase public support for legalization.

Some cities have changed the way they chase down pot smokers. 
Philadelphia, for example, last year decriminalized possession of as 
much as an ounce of the drug.

In Churchill, it's a matter of priorities.

"oeWe don't have time to deal with (small amounts of marijuana); 
we're strapped,"  said police Chief Allen Park. "oeWe'll destroy 
their marijuana, give them a citation for disorderly conduct and send 
them on their way."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom