Despite the decriminalization of cannabis in Philadelphia four years ago, African-Americans in the city are still being disproportionately charged with marijuana offenses by police. The city decriminalized possession of less than 30 grams of cannabis with an ordinance passed in 2014.
But arrests for possession are still made, and purchasing marijuana is still a criminal offense. In the four years since decriminalization, Black people—who represent 44 percent of the city’s population—made up 76 percent of all arrests for marijuana possession. The defendants in 81 percent of arrests for buying cannabis were Black.
The discrepancies exist despite numerous studies that have shown that White people and Black people use cannabis at comparable rates. David Rudovsky is a civil rights attorney who has filed racial bias lawsuits against the City of Philadelphia. He said in an email to local media that the racial disparity is unjustified.
“Given the equal use of marijuana by persons of different races, the fact that 80 percent of the arrests continue to be of Black suspects cannot be justified on the grounds that more Blacks than Whites possess marijuana,” said Rudovsky.
Captain Sekou Kinebrew of the Philadelphia Police Department said that most arrests for purchasing cannabis occur during enforcement activities or investigations targeting sellers. But he was unable to explain the racial disparity.
“We are evaluating the data, along with continual examination of our policies and practices, to determine the contributing factors for the disparity,” Kinebrew said.
Lyandra Retacco, the supervisor of the District Attorney’s Office charging unit, said that defendants charged with purchasing cannabis are “almost always” arrested during sting operations against sellers. She said that her office does not press charges against people who have only been arrested for purchasing small quantities of pot.
“If it’s a street-level hand-to-hand buy, we don’t think that’s fair,” Retacco said. She also said that “the evidence is absolutely still used [to prosecute] the dealer on the street.”
In 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union determined that statewide in Pennsylvania, Black people were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession. Andy Hoover, a spokesperson for the ACLU PA, said that police cannot be trusted to correct the problem themselves.
“[They] don’t have the will to fix it,” said Hoover. “That’s why marijuana policy has to be taken out of their hands by wiping marijuana criminalization off the books.”
Since decriminalization in Philadelphia, those caught with small amounts of cannabis are issued citations instead of being arrested. The fine for simple possession is $25, while public consumption will set an offender back $100. In 2017, police wrote more than 4,200 cannabis citations and the data collected so far for 2018 indicates that the year-end total will be similar.
But only 1 in 6 issued tickets for pot pay them, leaving more than $300,000 fines unpaid over the last two years. Mark A.R. Kleiman, an expert on cannabis policy reform, said the best solution is full legalization.
“I don’t see any good purpose to be served by punishing consuming it as opposed to selling it,” Kleiman said. “Issuing uncollected fines is bad policy. You should not issue penalties that you don’t enforce.”
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