Data collected by the cannabis advocacy organization NORML shows that there were 20,200 adults arrested for cannabis-related offenses in Pennsylvania in 2020.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the number represents an improvement over 2019.
Even though a pandemic disrupted Pennsylvania and the rest of the world for most of 2020, there were 220 more adult cannabis-related arrests than in 2019.
2020 saw the third-highest number of adult cannabis-related arrests in Pennsylvania since 2009.
Also, during the COVID-19 pandemic, cannabis users were targeted, according to NORML’s Chris Goldstein.
“This shows just how aggressively prohibition is enforced,” says Goldstein. “Despite the unprecedented public health risks in our communities. It’s time to stop marijuana arrests right now.”
The apparent rise in arrests coincides with the passage of decriminalization legislation in several major Pennsylvania towns, totaling 14 municipalities. However, as NORML points out, local authorities are disregarding some of those rules.
According to NORML, even after an ordinance was passed, the Lehigh County District Attorney’s Office declined to allow Allentown police to stop marijuana arrests.
Pittsburgh passed a law decriminalizing small quantities of marijuana in 2015, but in 2017, city cops arrested 772 adults for cannabis possession.
In 2018, the Pittsburgh Police Department arrested 735 adults for cannabis possession.
“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,” said 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.”
Chief of Staff Dan Gilman of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2018 that Peduto still believes in decriminalizing small quantities of cannabis. He didn’t dismiss cannabis arrests, but he did say that the 2017 statistics could be deceptive since certain possession arrests could be linked to more serious crimes. Peduto came out in favor of recreational drug legalization and expungement of criminal records for cannabis-related crimes in 2018.
The decriminalization bill in Pittsburgh has been criticized by legal scholars for unclear wording.
Cannabis possession remains illegal under state law, and city ordinances do not supersede state or federal law.
And even though the state Attorney General’s office told the Inquirer in 2019 that it doesn’t make arrests for small quantities of cannabis, local police officers also have the final say about whether to make arrests or not.
Furthermore, there is evidence that some police departments in Pennsylvania are misclassifying citations as arrests, potentially muddying the results. Despite this, police officers continue to confront people with small quantities of marijuana through citations and arrests. And, as Goldstein points out, these clashes overwhelmingly affect black people in Pennsylvania.
According to NORML, black people make up 12% of the population but account for 32% of marijuana arrests.
In Pennsylvania, there are 131 white residents convicted of cannabis possession for every 100,000 white residents, and 461 arrests for cannabis possession for every 100,000 black people.
In Pennsylvania, black residents are around 3.5 times more likely than white residents to be prosecuted for cannabis.