By Ryan Deto
According to Pennsylvania State Police data compiled by marijuana advocacy group NORML, there were 20,200 adults arrested for marijuana-related violations in the commonwealth in 2020.
This is actually an increase compared to 2019, according to data compiled by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Even though a pandemic disrupted Pennsylvania, and the rest of the world, for most of 2020, there were still 220 more adult marijuana-related arrests than in 2019. In fact, 2020 had the third most adult marijuana-related arrests in Pennsylvania of any year since 2009.
“Cannabis consumers were targeted, even during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Chris Goldstein of NORML said. “This shows just how aggressively prohibition is enforced, despite the unprecedented public health risks in our communities. It’s time to stop marijuana arrests right now.”
The apparent increase in arrests also comes as many large cities in Pennsylvania have passed decriminalization laws, 14 municipalities in total. But, as NORML notes, some of those laws are being ignored by local law enforcement.
For example, the Lehigh County District Attorney’s Office refused to allow Allentown police to stop marijuana arrests, even after an ordinance was passed, according to NORML.
Pittsburgh passed a law to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in 2015, but two years later in 2017, city police still made 772 adult marijuana-possession arrests. In 2018, Pittsburgh Police made 735 adult marijuana-possession arrests.
In 2018, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s Chief of Staff Dan Gilman told Pittsburgh City Paper that Peduto still deeply believes in the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana. He didn’t downplay the marijuana-arrest numbers, but added that the 2017 figures could be a bit misleading since some marijuana-possession arrests could be tied to more serious crimes. In 2018, Peduto came out in support for legalizing recreational marijuana and expunging criminal records for marijuana-related offenses.
Legal experts have criticized Pittsburgh’s decriminalization law for not including strong enough language.
State law still says possession of marijuana is illegal, and city ordinance doesn’t usurp state or federal law. And although the state Attorney General’s office told the Inquirer in 2019 that it doesn’t make arrests for small amounts of marijuana, it is still ultimately up to local police officers who decide to make arrests.
Additionally, there is some evidence that some police departments in Pennsylvania are marking citations as arrests, which could muddy the reporting data.
Even so, both citations and arrests mean people are still being confronted by police officers over having small amounts of marijuana. And Goldstein points out those confrontations are happening disproportionately to Black people in Pennsylvania.
Black people make up 12% of the population but 32% of marijuana arrests, according to NORML. For every 100,000 white people in Pennsylvania, there are 131 white residents arrested for marijuana. For every 100,000 Black people in Pennsylvania, there are 461 Black residents arrested for marijuana. Black residents are about 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana in Pennsylvania than white counterparts.
“Marijuana should not be used as an excuse for law enforcement to interact with otherwise law-abiding members of the public, especially during a global pandemic,” says NORML State Policies Manager Carly Wolf in a press release. “The ongoing prohibition of marijuana in Pennsylvania encroaches upon civil liberties and disproportionately impacts communities of color. It’s time for lawmakers to take action so that marijuana consumers are no longer treated as second class citizens.”
Ryan Deto is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.