Philly420: Marijuana arrests spike in many Pennsylvania counties - but why?

Chris Goldstein is a longtime marijuana reform advocate.

Counties across Pennsylvania are arresting people for marijuana possession at record levels even as police departments in the Commonwealth’s largest cities are adopting decriminalization procedures.

So why are arrests increasing? To find out, I crunched data, made nice charts, and asked local law enforcement for comment. What I discovered is that police often hope minor pot arrests lead to other, bigger, better crimes or criminals. Police also claim to let a lot of people go for weed, which is also rather difficult to prove.

Meanwhile, prosecutors are trying to keep the bulk of these cases out of criminal courts, but are still throwing the book at some marijuana defendants.

Marijuana is more accepted by the mainstream and local cannabis consumers may have become too relaxed where prohibition still exists. Still, rising arrests seem to be driven more by a patchwork of policies and priorities that can change dramatically at the township line.

Offenders caught in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system over a few grams of weed face anything from a friendly discussion or a ticket to prosecution, a trial, jail, supervision or worse; becoming a confidential police informant. It all depends on the attitude of the local police chief, the county District Attorney and more often, the local City Council.

A review of data in the Pa. Uniform Crime Reporting System (UCR) from 2007-2016 shows the sharpest rise in marijuana possession arrests occurred in the last three years in all counties but Allegheny and Philadelphia. These “Code 18F” Offenses mean those arrested possessed less than 30 grams of cannabis. (Data from last year are not fully complete and could change)

The counties immediately bordering Philadelphia - Bucks, Montgomery and Delaware - have all seen significant increases.

In recent years, Bucks County was consistently clocking about 900 marijuana possession arrests. It jumped to 1,257 in 2016.

Montgomery County saw a steady rise from 1,038 marijuana possession arrests in 2010 up to 1,654 logged in the system for 2016 thus far.

Arrests for opioids and cocaine also increased in most counties. Still, marijuana possession remained the most arrested drug related offense, in some counties by a ratio of more than five to one

Bucks County's new District Attorney Matthew Weintraub laughed off the notion of a special enforcement focus on pot, like a special Operation Harold and Kumar.

How will his office handle the more than 1,000 cannabis enthusiasts they see each year?

“I think we're going to handle it on a case-by-case basis,” says Weintraub, “There are occasions where we would seek to prosecute to the full extent, but a majority are negotiated to some sort of guilty plea.”

That means they never come through a full trial and get a lesser offense.

“Often it's a paraphernalia charge. They [offenders] will not suffer a loss of license and if supervision is warranted we could accomplish that goal as well.”

Weintraub looked over the UCR data before we spoke and I asked his comments on marijuana possession being the most-arrested drug related crime in his county.

“It brings to bear a great question whether we are getting the best value for our prosecution and law enforcement manpower efforts in focusing on this or more serious crimes … right now this is the law on the books and we will enforce it.”

Weintruab said he “will look at this issue critically going forward.”

What does he think of the decriminalization ordinances in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and State College where possession arrests have declined?

“I can understand the efficacy but we haven't reached the critical mass for that here,” Weintraub said.

Looking deeper into the UCR data revealed that a few municipalities account for a disproportionate number of the new arrests.

Bensalem generated almost half of the marijuana possession arrests in Bucks County.

DA Weintraub wasn't surprised and put me in touch with Bensalem's Police Director Fred Harran.

“We are aggressively policing possessing or dealing drugs,” Harran said.

Is there a special focus on small amounts of weed in Bensalem?

“We're looking for drugs, until the Commonwealth says otherwise,” Harran said. “Opioids are certainly right there, because people are dying from addiction and overdoses.”

“I have a fairly substantial narcotics unit,” Harran continued. “I am the only person [police department] with seven, eight people assigned to narcotics. It is one of the major issues that affects other crimes and I have devoted a lot of resources to locking up people who have drugs.”

Indeed, those resources have had an effect. Bensalem Township police arrested 162 people in 2010 for marijuana possession. That number soared to 466 in 2016.

Opiate/cocaine possession arrests in Bensalem have also spiked from 77 in 2010 to 328 in incomplete data from 2016.

But why did simple pot arrests see the the biggest increase?

“We don't give people a pass,” says Harran. ”A lot of the people who we arrest for marijuana, they can lead us to other individuals who are committing other crimes.”

A marijuana consumer caught in Bensalem will be strongly encouraged by police to disclose information in exchange for lighter treatment. It seems, by Harran's account, that those involved with more serious crimes are rewarded with a deal but otherwise law abiding citizens with a joint may suffer the harshest fate.

“Look, it's no secret that law enforcement all over takes [those arrested] for a minor crime to obtain information on bigger crimes or different drugs,” Harran said.

Yet, becoming a confidential police informant can prove dangerous. Recall the case of Rachel Hoffman. She was a bright college student in Florida murdered in 2008 while serving as an informant. Her entry into the criminal justice system stemmed from an arrest during a traffic stop for a small amount of pot.

Harran conceded that his officers could never arrest every single person they encounter with marijuana because it is found so often.

I asked Harran how his officers decide on who to arrest and who not to arrest for marijuana.

He responded: “Locking up people smoking pot, using drugs has an impact on other crimes. There was a 42 percent reduction in burglary 2014 to 2016, 40 percent reduction in robbery, 13 percent reduction in retail theft … and a 76 percent increase in narcotics arrests 2014-2016.”

Does Harran believe that the increase in narcotics arrests is directly responsible for reducing those other crimes?

“Well, no. It's the whole picture,” said Harran, “We're getting more criminals so we're closing more cases.”

Since Harran conceded that his police officers don't always actually arrest for marijuana I asked what he thought of decriminalization ordinances.

“I would not be in favor of it,” Harran stated without missing a beat. ”I believe marijuana is a gateway drug. I don't believe decriminalizing marijuana will solve our problems.”

It is important here to note that many studies shed strong doubt on the “gateway” theory. Researchers attribute factors once blamed on marijuana as being attributed more to alcohol.

Throughout our conversations, both Weintraub and Harran repeatedly highlighted their efforts to combat the high profile epidemic of prescription pills, heroin and fentanyl abuse.

Arrests for sales/manufacture of opiates and cocaine totaled just 175 in Bucks County for all of 2015.

In fact, the strangest twist in the Pa. crime data shows that sales and manufacturing arrests are actually declining across most Pennsylvania counties for all drugs. This runs counter to the priorities stated by law enforcement officials and legislators.

According to the data, more residents are being caught with small amounts of illicit substances but fewer dealers are being busted.

Montgomery County has one of the more interesting trends in Pa. by arresting more people in 2015 for simple marijuana possession (1,557) than for all other drug crimes, combined (1,416).

Several municipalities in Montgomery County tally between 80 and 100 marijuana arrests every year. But, Abington Township, the county's second largest community, has the most with 348 on the books so far in the 2016 data.

Abington Deputy Police Chief John Livingood said his department was not specifically focusing on marijuana possession.

“Our officers are out there aggressively making car stops and looking for problems.”

Marijuana, says Livingood, “Is so prevalent out there that we run across it virtually all the time, really all the time. Certainly not all of those result in an arrest.”

He continued: “I can tell you that I think what we are doing is fair and there is no crackdown. We would be arresting 100 times the numbers you are quoting if that was the case.”

So, what makes an Abington police officer arrest one person who has marijuana and basically let another person go?

“The ones where there's a disturbance, where there's a fight and we find some marijuana,” Livingood explains.

Basically, marijuana possession is an easy reason to arrest in order to control a more dynamic situation, which is a more reasonable explanation than seeking to make every stoner an informant.

What does Livingood think of the decriminalization ordinances?

“At some point and time … but I'm not favor of legalization. Making it a summary offense, it's not really decriminalizing it.”

He’s correct. A summary is still a criminal offense in Pennsylvania, whereas Philadelphia hands out civil code violations for pot.

Still, “Basically making it [marijuana possession] like a traffic citation,” is something Livingood could support.

What happens to all those arrested in Montgomery County? It’s up to District Attorney Kevin Steele’s office. Steele did not respond to my requests for an interview. But Kate Delano, the spokeswoman for his office, did respond via email on how the department handles the 1,557 weed cases.

Delano wrote that “472 made it up to the Court of Common Pleas and therefore to prosecution by the DA’s Office.”

It is unclear exactly what happened to the other offenders, but many seem to have pleaded guilty to lesser offenses.

Another option mentioned by Delano is also utilized by many county District Attorneys on marijuana cases: “Where the defendant has no prior record, the offense can be eligible for Section 17 probation, which is probation without verdict.”

Essentially the sentence is suspended until a period of probation is completed. The whole event can be expunged from the defendant's criminal record.

Again, Delano took time to showcase efforts in Montgomery County to investigate, arrest and prosecute those dealing opiate pills and heroin. But arrests in Montgomery County for opiate and cocaine sales and manufacture were down to 202 in 2015 from 390 in 2010.

Philadelphia is the only county significantly bucking all of the recent arrest trends.

Back in 2010, Philly police arrested 5,533 adults and juveniles for marijuana possession. After the city decriminalized marijuana offenses in 2014, marijuana arrests plummeted to 784 in 2015. About 1,300 code violation tickets for marijuana were issued in the same year.

Philly’s opiate/cocaine possession arrests have remained constant, at more than 4,000 such arrests per year. At the same time, arrests for the sale or manufacture of opiates and cocaine in the UCR data have also slightly declined.

So what is causing more marijuana consumers to end up in the hands of cops?

“The increase in arrests leads to more questions,” says Andy Hoover, the communications director at ACLU-PA.

“Is law enforcement getting more aggressive? Is enforcement within constitutional boundaries? Is this the result of the state Supreme Court authorizing warrantless searches of vehicles?”

Adds Hoover: “As reform succeeds, enforcement increases. It looks like a backlash to the success of the reformers. This data highlights the need for statewide decriminalization and, ultimately, an end to prohibition.”

Chris Goldstein teaches “Marijuana in the Media” at the Temple School of Journalism and sits on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML. He was instrumental in Philadelphia's marijuana decriminalization ordinance.

Reach Chris at: activevoiceradio@gmail.com