Efforts to decriminalize, legalize weed in Pa. haven’t led to big drop in arrests
The legal weed industry is among the fastest-growing in the United States, according to a Marijuana Business Daily report. Veuer’s Sam Berman has the full story.
Pennsylvania’s recreational marijuana battle sits on the front line of a generational war over American cannabis laws. And as debate heats up, there seems to be some discrepancies over what you can and cannot get in trouble for in the Keystone State.
Several cities in Pennsylvania have already passed local ordinances decriminalizing marijuana — a step in the right direction if you are in favor of recent efforts to legalize recreational use.
Those cities include: Allentown, Philadelphia, Norristown, Erie, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, York and Lancaster.
But that doesn’t mean those Pennsylvania residents can just light up on the street. If police find that eighth in your pocket, you won’t be looking at a conviction, but don’t expect to keep your stash. The penalties for possessing small amounts are typically nothing more than fines ranging from $25 to $500.
So if that’s the case, why are police still arresting hundreds of Pennsylvanians on marijuana charges?
In 2019, about 21,789 people were arrested and charged for possessing less than 30 grams of cannabis (an ounce is 28.5 grams), according to data from the Pennsylvania State Police — that’s almost an 11% decline from the 24,305 arrests made in 2018.
“Any decline is good,” said Jeffrey Riedy of the Lehigh Valley chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “But that’s still too many arrests. The numbers have remained too consistent over the years for a state that’s on it’s way to decriminalizing recreational use.”
Ah, that’s the kicker. The 2019 arrests are still greater than the numbers recorded in 2009 — when no city in Pennsylvania decriminalized possession of marijuana.
Not sure how to make sense of that? Here’s a look at what these decriminalization ordinances mean.
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Yorkers debated the legalization of marijuana during Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman’s Legalization Listening Session on March 19, 2019. York Daily Record
If my town has an ordinance in place, does this mean marijuana is legal?
No. Not even a little bit.
Marijuana is still illegal in Pennsylvania, and the policy applies only to simple possession of amounts under an ounce of marijuana. As stated before, an ounce is 28.5 grams.
Amounts of more than an ounce can still result in criminal possession charges — that amount was chosen in an effort to separate the users from the dealers. Sounds pretty logical.
If my town has an ordinance in place, can I still be arrested for having it?
Absolutely. And, in accordance with state law, your marijuana will be confiscated.
If found in possession of a small amount of marijuana, local police still have the power to arrest if they feel they have probable cause. You can still get put in cuffs and booked into the county jail. That includes if you’re pulled over by Pennsylvania State Police while driving on an interstate within the city.
However, prosecutors may choose not to press charges when the case reaches them.
Also, don’t expect to get your weed back. It’s still illegal, remember?
Some arrests disregard local ordinances
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Some arrests seemingly disregarded the fact that several cities have adopted local ordinances and that many prosecutors are declining to take the cases, said Andy Hoover, spokesperson for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
Former York Mayor Kim Bracey reformed marijuana prosecutions in August 2017, for instance, but police still arrested 55 people in the city for low-level possession through December. And another 156 marijuana possession arrests were made by the York City Police in 2018.
So while down from most previous years, the pot possession arrests underscore the complicated societal damage connected to marijuana legal reforms unfolding across the country, Hoover said.
Penalties for low-level marijuana possession inflict unjust harm to poor and minority communities, he said.
“It’s like the rest of the legal system,” Hoover said. “It disproportionately impacts people of color. Marijuana use is not very different across race. But it’s black Americans, black Pennsylvanians, more likely to get arrested.”
And sure, you might not be prosecuted in the end, Riedy said, but that doesn’t erase the arrest. On average, it costs a community more than $2,000 for each marijuana arrest made, he said.
“There’s a lack of communication with what these ordinances mean for local law enforcement,” said Judith Cassel, an attorney for Cannabis Law PA. “Has anybody sat down with law enforcement and said, ‘Don’t waste your time on this because there are more serious crimes out there we would like to redirect your energies and resources to?'”
In addition to time and money spent in court, the potential repercussions span everything from affecting future criminal prosecutions to immigration and deportation issues.
“Getting arrested for anything can be problematic for a person,” Hoover said. “It could affect unemployment, education, housing. There could be a huge ripple effect.”
Police are still arresting hundreds of Pennsylvanians on marijuana charges despite efforts to legalize pot and the fact that prosecutors are declining to take the cases.