Opinion: Time for a full stop on marijuana arrests in Pennsylvania

As state lawmakers debate cannabis legalization, advocates say they should bring an end to cannabis-related arrests in the commonwealth.

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Pennsylvania is now an island of criminal cannabis prohibition. The last holdout of a destructive era.

This week, Gov. Josh Shapiro used his budget address to once again call for legal cannabis. The renewed effort was highlighted with an animated dollar-sign graphic on social media. Unfortunately, focusing on the cash hides the truth about this tragic policy. 

Thousands of adults and juveniles are still being arrested, prosecuted and sentenced over simple marijuana possession in Pennsylvania. That’s thousands of Pennsylvanians unnecessarily experiencing the maw of the criminal legal system. A criminal record for even a minor misdemeanor for marijuana possession can lead to job loss, being shut out from educational opportunities and denial of housing.

This blatant, ongoing injustice should stop immediately while the inevitable legalization debates continue. 

The projected number of low-level cannabis possession arrests this year for New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and – as Shapiro so memorably put it in his budget proposal address this week – “friggin’ Ohio” is … zero. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania is on track to arrest more than 10,000 people for as little as a few grams of weed. 

Local politicians – both Democrats and Republicans – have won popularity and likely entire elections by leaning toward cannabis. Former Attorney General and now-Gov. Shapiro first embraced weed on the campaign trail, courting the same voters who turned out again and again for now-U.S. Sen. John Fetterman. 

Western Pennsylvania state Sens. Camera Bartolotta and Dan Laughlin have enjoyed some national attention as Republicans supporting cannabis reform. However, even Senate Bill 1028, a bill downgrading marijuana possession to a summary offense, hasn’t seen a committee vote – despite bipartisan support. 

We applaud Shapiro’s support for cannabis reform – but we need tangible results in 2024 far more than nice words and popular Instagram posts. 

It’s time to stop cannabis arrests in Pennsylvania right now. 

As consumer rights activists with NORML, we’ve been tracking cannabis arrest data in Pennsylvania since 2008. There used to be more than 20,000 every year. While state laws lagged behind, we worked with city councils to adopt new policies.

Philadelphia passed a marijuana decriminalization ordinance in 2014 that made possession a civil, non-criminal violation with a $25 ticket. That shift reduced arrests by 78% in the first month and has prevented numerous permanent criminal records over the last decade. 

Following Philly’s lead, more than 30 municipalities from every region of the commonwealth worked with NORML activists to pass decriminalization or penalty downgrade ordinances. Those cities include Pittsburgh, Erie, Bethlehem, Allentown, York, Lancaster – and even the City of Harrisburg. 

It’s been obvious for a century that marijuana is used as a terrible excuse to aggressively police lower-income and working-class communities. Prohibition and all of its worst impacts have always targeted people of color. In 2022, the last year data is available, there were nearly 12,000 arrests for less than 30 grams of cannabis across the commonwealth. That’s equal to all other substance possession arrests, combined. 

But not pursuing low-level marijuana enforcement could save Pennsylvania taxpayers as much as $100 million per year. Before any stores ever open, the actual criminal justice savings could quickly be reappropriated at every level.

Stopping mass arrests over marijuana is also a public health issue. There is a growing industry in Pennsylvania of more than 160 medical marijuana dispensaries that are run by about 30 companies, serving nearly 1 million registered patients. Reliable access took years to sort out, with several bills passed in recent years that helped the corporate cannabis industry. These included rolling back medical marijuana lab testing standards and giving a massive tax break to some international companies. 

Hearings held in the Pennsylvania House Health Committee have demonstrated that hammering out the final details of legalization will likely take years as well. And while lawmakers and corporate interests squabble, thousands of people should not continue to be arrested.

Consumers are the real engine of the cannabis economy. Every penny of regulated profits and taxes will be extracted from the wallets of working-class people, not from plants. Two-thirds of Pennsylvanians believe that possession of this plant should not be a crime, according to a recent poll from Franklin and Marshall College. And, from a tourism perspective, a policy of handcuffs for weed is not a welcome mat. 

There are real people behind that animated dollar sign, and we deserve justice even before the state gets a windfall of tax revenue.

Chris Goldstein is the regional organizer for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Pa., NJ, and Delaware. Jeff Riedy is the executive director of the Lehigh Valley NORML chapter. Both have worked on every level of cannabis reform from passing municipal ordinances to visiting Congress, and have been testifying on reform bills in Harrisburg since 2009. Goldstein recently received a Presidential Pardon for marijuana possession.

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