HARRISBURG – The findings of a new study that black people are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, even though usage rates are just about the same, does not surprise the ACLU.
“The racial disparities in possession arrests have been around for a long time,” said Andy Hoover, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “It is distressing that it’s getting worse.”
But what is a surprise, Hoover said, is that possession arrests for marijuana are on the rise around the state, despite an ever-increasing social acceptance.
“We’re seeing now that 59 percent of Pennsylvanians support legalization. Only 31 percent oppose,” he said today, adding “the rise in possession arrests is distressing.”
But he hopes lawmakers are on board with the call the ACLU made today at the state Capitol to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania.
You can read the full report, Cannabis Crackdown, on the ACLU’s website.
In summary, the authors of the report studied marijuana offenses in Pennsylvania from 2010 to 2016. The study shows:
- Possession arrests of adults increased 33 percent in that time,
- Black people were eight times more likely than white people to be arrested, despite similar usage rates,
- The state police total arrests per year more than doubled from 2,221 to 4,612 in that seven-year period,
- The cost to Pennsylvania taxpayers has been more than $225 million in that time.
“Legalization is the only solution to this problem,” Hoover said.
Philadelphia engaged in a decriminalization effort in the last three years, said Matt Stroud of the ACLU, who is an author of the report. The data there shows a remarkable decline in marijuana-related arrests there – about 88 percent.
Cannabis consumer advocate Chris Goldstein said since Philadelphia’s decriminalization, there have been no marijuana-possession arrests of the more than 300,000 students on the city’s college campuses, as opposed to Penn State, where 250 students are arrested per year for marijuana possession.
And unlike Philadelphia, the other 66 counties in Pennsylvania show a remarkable increase in arrests, Stroud added.
In reading this report, state Rep. Jordan Harris of Philadelphia, who is chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, agrees that marijuana should be legalized. The current laws are “nothing be a war on the people,” he said, and research shows legalization does not make communities less safe.
“It’s time to stand on research, and the research shows it’s time to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania,” he said, getting applause from the supporters attending the event.
It is particularly disturbing that racial bias has creeped into marijuana arrests, he said.
“I would much rather my law enforcement officers work on murder, rape and protecting our children than spending our valuable tax resources on arresting people for smoking a jay on their way home from a long day of work,” he said.
The police have more important things to focus on than “a non-violent thing called smoking a joint,” added state Rep. Ed Gainey of Allegheny County.
“We can’t continue to incarcerate,” he said. “What we have to do is legitimize and legalize a drug that the people should have the choice to use.”
And consumer advocate Goldstein said while the racial disparity is disturbing, so are the number of lives ruined by possession arrests. He said 70 percent of those arrested for possession are between 18 and 30 years old, and these arrests unfairly impact their ability to find jobs, get an education and make a life for themselves.
While the ACLU and some lawmakers support legalization, it may be a challenging road ahead, but ACLU spokesman Hoover said he is hopefully.
“There is a lot of conversation here in the General Assembly about smart justice,” he said. “There is a recognition that the policies implemented in the last 30 to 40 years have failed. We believe that cannabis legalization is part of that discussion.”
Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat from Montgomery County, first introduced a marijuana-legalization bill in 2013, and has a new version of that bill in the Senate Law and Justice Committee now. His spokesman, Steve Hoenstine, said this bill calls for marijuana to be sold at state stores, where there is already a sales and monitoring system in place.
And those sales are projected to “completely close the revenue gap with a brand new, sustained revenue that does not involved a tax increase.”
He said it only makes sense to bring in these funds rather than spending taxpayer money on enforcement.
Marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, Hoover added, adding the “reefer madness mentality is old, inaccurate and wrong.”
This post has been updated with more information about a bill currently in committee.