Drug possession arrests have been on a steep decline in Camden, New Jersey over the last three years. Yet still more people were arrested for marijuana than any other controlled substance in 2016.
That is according to data supplied by Camden County in a first look into cannabis arrests under the re-organized Camden County Police Department, which patrols the city.
Here's the breakdown from 2016: Marijuana (241), Opiates/Cocaine (229), Synthetic (97), Other (1) for a total of 568 drug possession arrests in Camden last year.
That's an almost 40 percent reduction from 2013 when Camden saw 940 marijuana and drug possession arrests.
The largest decline was in the “synthetic” category, a catch-all classification that includes methamphetamine, non-opiate prescription pills (Valium, Xanax etc.), K2/Spice, and ecstasy among other substances.
Notice also that cocaine and opiates are classed under the same arrest code. Thus there is no way to determine exactly how many arrests there were for heroin versus crack cocaine. What is notable is that just marijuana possession arrests tend to be equal to or greater than the combined cocaine/opiate drug code.
Ricardo Rivera, a registered medical marijuana caregiver for his daughter Tatyana, has launched an effort to convince Camden City Council and Mayor Dana Redd to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Rivera, who grew up in the beleaguered city, testified during the last public Camden City Council meeting on Feb. 14 as local residents cheered the concept of decriminalizing marijuana. Members of council were not as enthusiastic. Some, including former state Assemblyman Angel Fuentes, said they were interested in continuing the conversation.
Dozens of municipalities across America have enacted local marijuana ordinances that have eliminated arrests, the chance of jail or probation, and permanent records. Seventeen states have decriminalized marijuana overall, including Maryland and Delaware.
Getting the data from Camden was almost a story in itself and took several weeks of phone calls, emails, and tweets to various county officials.
Camden completely disbanded the police force in 2012 under a radical re-set, forming under the new banner of the Camden County Police Department.
CCPD regularly releases crime data on Camden, but just not drug possession arrests.
Philly420 often reports arrest data from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System. It's an easy to use, constantly updated, online database.
The New Jersey State Police issues only an annual Uniform Crime Report. However, the most recent report dates to 2014 and does not include city-specific data. NJSP crime data is collected by county. That's why it took direct appeals to CCPD and Camden County to get sunshine on the drug possession arrest numbers.
How much do these arrests cost? Based on previous formulas Camden could be spending more than $305,000 each year to arrest people for small amounts of weed and another $300,000 processing them through the courts. All tax dollars.
In 2015 Rivera lost his sister, Matilda Candelaria, to an overdose and is asking the NJ Department of Health to add “opiate addiction” as qualifying condition for access to medical marijuana.
“Some of these people with marijuana in Camden – probably everywhere - are medicating illegally,” says Rivera, “They can't afford to get into the [NJ] medical cannabis program, maybe they are even smoking weed to try and cut down on their opiates.
"They shouldn't be arrested.”
For complete cannabis coverage, go to philly.com/cannabis.