Pa. marijuana arrests double those for heroin, cocaine

072015-Handcuffs
In 2013 there were 20,698 adults and juveniles arrested for having less than 30 grams of marijuana but just 10,255 arrested for heroin and cocaine, according to data from the state's Uniform Crime Report.

Residents in Pennsylvania are arrested twice as often for possessing marijuana than for heroin and cocaine combined. 

In 2013 there were 20,698 adults and juveniles arrested for having less than 30 grams of marijuana but just 10,255 arrested for heroin and cocaine, according to data from the state's Uniform Crime Report. 

Numbers in 2014 were similar. Last year, police arrested 20,347 for pot and 11,045 for heroin and cocaine. 

The good news is that Philadelphia has flipped the ratio.

During the first six months of the year, Philadelphia police arrested 465 people for weed but 2,083 for heroin and cocaine combined. 

Right now the City of Brotherly Love is the only place in the Keystone State where more people are arrested for deadly drugs than for non-lethal cannabis. 

With marijuana decriminalized, Philly pot arrests are down more than 70 percent from January to June 2015 compared to the same period last year.

Heroin and cocaine arrests have also slightly increased in the city. This is some indication that police have been able to focus on more serious crimes, including harder drugs.

Philly police officers now can issue civil citations of $25 for possession and $100 for smoking in public under a change in law championed by mayoral candidate Jim Kenney when he was on City Council. The new procedure has been in place since October 2014.

Another positive note is that DUI arrests have not shown much change under decrim. 

However, one category of data remains disturbing. There is a huge racial disparity to Philly pot arrests. Although the volume of arrests have seen a massive decline, black residents are still almost 5 times as likely to get handcuffs for weed than their white counterparts.

An important fact is also clear in the data. White offenders comprise the majority of heroin and cocaine arrests in Philly and across Pennsylvania. This points to an institutionalized racial component to enforcing marijuana prohibition enforcement. 

Gov. Wolf has supported the concept of decriminalizing cannabis possession statewide. Such a move could save local police and courts more than $26 million per year.  

But some legislators in Harrisburg have gotten on the wrong track when it comes to this idea.

Two House representatives from Berks County, Tom Caltagirone (D) and Barry Jozwiak (R), want to downgrade marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to a summary offense. But their bills would also tie the hands of local judges by mandating a steep increase in fines. This could send more cannabis consumers into jail, not for having a joint, but for being unable to pay hundreds of dollars in new fines. 

Philadelphia has a clear model of how marijuana decriminalization could work for the entire state. Reducing fines and criminal penalties while removing the possibility of a harsh, permanent record is a real benefit to citizens and our municipal government. 

As the national conversation about criminal justice reform gains serious momentum we are seeing one of the solutions in real time. Until marijuana is fully legalized and regulated here we could, at least, stop the injustice of arrests. 

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