HARRISBURG — While Gov. Tom Wolf and other Democrats have embraced the idea of legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use, police continue to arrest people for possessing the drug in record numbers.
While the number of arrests for pot possession plummeted in Philadelphia after the state’s largest city decriminalized marijuana possession, there were more arrests for possession of marijuana statewide in 2018 than any of the previous 10 years, arrest data compiled by the state police and the FBI shows.
There were 23,940 people charged with possession of marijuana in Pennsylvania in 2018, up from 23,127 in the prior year, according to FBI data. State police filed charges in 6,549 of those 2018 arrests, said Ryan Tarkowski, a state police spokesman.
“The Pennsylvania State Police enforces laws as they are written,” Tarkowski said.
Wolf announced on Sept. 27 that based on public input generated by a statewide listening tour conducted by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman that it’s time for the state to move to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana. Legislation to do that — including a bill introduced Monday that would sell marijuana from the state-run system of liquor stores — have been introduced in the Legislature. Republicans who have the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly have expressed strong opposition to the idea of legalizing marijuana.
With the resistance to full legalization, Wolf has called for action on decriminalizing marijuana as a stop-gap measure in the meantime.
"The governor believes the solution to this problem is the decriminalization and expungement reforms that he has supported," said J.J. Abbott, a Wolf spokesman.
The idea of decriminalizing marijuana enjoys broad support, said Andy Hoover, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Lawmakers and the public are increasingly aware of the need for criminal justice reform, and this is a criminal justice reform issue. It is urgent that police stop arresting people for marijuana possession,” Hoover said. “There’s no public gain from prohibition, and there’s a lot of harm. There are collateral consequences for the person arrested, and enforcing prohibition costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars every year.”
Marijuana possession charges account for half of the 46,431 drug possession charges filed in Pennsylvania last year, according to the FBI data.
On the other hand, the 4,160 people arrested for selling marijuana, only accounted for about one-quarter of the 16,455 arrests in Pennsylvania in 2018 for selling or distributing drugs, according to the FBI.
In addition, the state police conducted raids targeting 102 illegal indoor growing operations and 126 illegal outdoor growing operations, resulting in the seizure of 3,571 plants in 2018. Thus far in 2019, state police have raided 33 illegal indoor growing operations and 49 outdoor plots, seizing 1,372 plants, Tarkowski said.
Philadelphia decriminalized possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana in 2014. Anyone cited for possessing marijuana now just pays a $25 fine to resolve the complaint, he said.
In 2013, there were 3,773 arrests for marijuana possession in the city. Since then, the number of people arrested for marijuana possession in the state’s largest city has tumbled. In 2018, there were 507 people arrested for marijuana possession in Philadelphia.
Northumberland County, with a population of less than 95,000 people, had 262 people arrested for marijuana possession last year, according to state data. Mercer County, which has a population of a little more than 110,000 people, had 220 people arrested for marijuana possession.
So those two counties, alone, with a combined population of about 200,000 people had almost as many marijuana possession arrests than Philadelphia, a city with 1.6 million people.
Police in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, filed 3,004 charges for possession of marijuana in 2018, according to state data. The four counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery, including the suburbs outside Philadelphia, accounted for another 4,213 of the state’s pot possession arrests last year, according to state data.
The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association opposes the idea of legalizing marijuana, but would support a move to make possession of marijuana a “non-criminal offense,” said Greg Rowe, director of legislation and policy for the group.
“Such legislation would still allow for treatment opportunities and intervention and ensure that these cases do not take up significant court time,” Rowe said.
Rowe said in some counties, people arrested on marijuana possession charges are already being given the opportunity to get reduced penalties by participating in treatment programs.
But those efforts are a misguided approach, considering the widespread acceptance of marijuana use, said Chris Goldstein, a Philadelphia-based journalist and activist with South Philly NORML.
Prosecutors think SMART marijuana reform is: “Stoners Must All Receive Treatment,” he said.
That approach means people caught with a small amount of marijuana are forced to choose between getting a criminal conviction on their record or getting substance abuse treatment they may not need, he said.
Goldstein said that while state politicians in Pennsylvania have lined up by party affiliation — with Democrats in favor of legalizing marijuana and Republicans opposed to it, he thinks that people of all political ideologies use the drug.
“Police don’t ask if your Republican or Democrat” when they arrest you for possessing marijuana, he said.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.