Pubdate: Mon, 26 Feb 2018
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2018 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Author: Chris Goldstein


Philadelphia is evolving into a safe haven for cannabis consumers even
as arrests increase across Pennsylvania. Newly-elected District
Attorney Larry Krasner announced Thursday that he would drop any
marijuana possession cases brought to the court by police.

A 2014 decriminalization ordinance allowing tickets caused common weed
arrests to decline by more than 85 percent. Still, I reported last
year that hundreds of racially disparate cases were still being
brought to Philly courts each year for less than 30 grams of buds.

Krasner isn't the only DA to make such a move: Brooklyn's Kenneth
Thompson dismissed thousands of possession cases, and Kim Ogg in
Houston, TX recently stopped charging weed possession as a crime.

Outside of Philly, the police and prosecutors of Pennsylvania are
turning a little bit of green into a lifetime of problems for a big
group of young adults. There were 27,133 arrests for cannabis last
year, and fewer than 20 percent were for the more serious charges of
growing and selling.

The commonwealth saw 20,392 adults and 2,269 juveniles charged during
2017 for low-level marijuana possession, according to the Pa. Uniform
Crime Reporting System (UCRS).

That means police were arresting 55 adults every day, simply for the
act of having cannabis in the Keystone State. The number nearly equals
all other drug possession arrests, combined.

The cost? A RAND Corporation study commissioned by Vermont put the
cost of one weed arrest at $1,266. In Philadelphia, each misdemeanor
case was estimated to cost $1,000 to process.

That means about $46 million taxpayer dollars were spent just last
year to prosecute average consumers for having less than an ounce of

People under age 30 comprised a huge portion (71 percent)of all Pa.'s 
low-level marijuana arrests. Millennials alone (those between the ages 
of 21 and 29) made up nearly half (43 percent) of those caught. Our 
young adults who should be getting their lives, degrees and careers 
underway bear the brunt of this harsh policy.

Each number in the total is a person; someone whose entire life was

Fines and probation are almost always assigned. Judges often use
Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) for first time charges,
but the out-of-pocket expense to an offender is often more than
$2,000. Factor in hiring a lawyer, possibly losing a driver's license
or even a job, and that marijuana arrest can turn into a financial

Once in the system, cannabis abstinence is enforced through urine
tests. Failing for THC while on probation can force the offender into
mandatory drug treatment or even jail. During 2016 there were 3,507
free treatment admissions in Philadelphia paid for by Single County
Authority funding. And 640 – about 20 percent – were
administered for "marijuana." These resources are desperately needed
for the opiate crisis.

Males were also more commonly caught: Women were 9 times less likely
to get arrested for marijuana. Parents can often face custody or
family court issues over a few grams of cannabis.

After all the court requirements are satisfied, each offender is
saddled with a permanent record that can lead to a lifetime of job

The arrests are in stark contrast to Gov. Tom Wolf heralding a limited
number of medical marijuana dispensaries that are opening across the
state. It also goes against much of the bipartisan sentiment to clear
criminal records.

Erie recently joined York, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, State College and
other cities by enacting a local ordinance to downgrade these charges
to a summary, but still count them as a crime. Only Philadelphia's
2014 decriminalization ordinance punishes possession with a civil
fine, keeping offenders out of the courts and never starting a record.

Some politicians in Harrisburg are looking for answers. Rep. Jordan
Harris (D., Phila.), Rep. Ed Gainey (D., Allegheny), and Rep. Barry
Jozwiak (R., Berks) have active legislation to downgrade or
decriminalize marijuana possession statewide. Full legalization is
also coming into clearer view on the political horizon.

Today, New Jersey and Delaware are both poised to cross the threshold
to regulated sales, yet the Keystone State is still plowing forward
with the bulldozer of prohibition. Until legislators in Harrisburg
stop marijuana arrests I hope that District Attorneys in every Pa.
county consider taking Krasner's approach.
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