Marijuana-related criminal cases are clogging local courts in Pennsylvania and putting an unnecessary burden on scarce law enforcement resources, according to a new study from a justice reform advocacy organization.
The Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, reviewed 27,826 criminal cases of all kinds prosecuted in Lehigh County and Northampton County between January 2018 and March 2021. The group’s analysis found that “marijuana criminalization slows our criminal justice system” and puts a strain on “understaffed public defenders” in the two jurisdictions.
According to the report, a total of 4,559 (about one in six) of the cases included a marijuana charge. Among those cases, 96% also involved an additional nonviolent offense, or co-charge. The analysis also found that marijuana-related court cases took an average of nearly five months (162 days) to reach a conclusion. The report noted that the longest-lasting marijuana-related case took 1,129 days, or more than three years, to be resolved in the courts. The case also included one additional charge of disorderly conduct that was eventually withdrawn by the district attorney’s office.
Joe Welsh, the executive director at the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, said the report illustrates how prosecuting marijuana cases is expanding scarce public resources that could instead fund efforts to address “real crime.” Welsh also noted that nearby states including neighboring New Jersey have legalized adult-use cannabis, further illustrating the futility of continued prohibition. Regulated sales of adult-use cannabis began in New Jersey in April after Governor Phil Murphy signed recreational marijuana legislation into law in February 2021.
“Police are spending time charging people with marijuana offenses. That’s time taken away from serious crimes like rapes, murders and assaults,” Welsh said. “Particularly, considering that you can walk across the Northampton Street Bridge between Easton and Phillipsburg and purchase marijuana.”
Under Pennsylvania state law, marijuana possession is classified as a misdemeanor offense carrying penalties of up to $500 and a jail sentence of up to 30 days. However, local laws passed in Allentown and Bethlehem in 2018 reduced such charges to summary offenses, which do not require a suspect to be arrested. Instead, those convicted of a summary offense can avoid jail time and pay a fine as low as $25 for a first offense.
The local reforms were designed to give law enforcement officers more discretion when enforcing marijuana prohibition laws. But Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin has circumvented the local reforms by requiring police officers in the county to file state charges for marijuana offenses.
“Local city councils do not have the power or authority to deviate from state law,” Martin told lehighvalleylive.com in an email. “The state law preempts the field. I took an oath to uphold the U.S. and Commonwealth constitutions; therefore, I don’t decide to enforce only the laws I choose to enforce. I enforce the law as written.”
The report from Lehigh Valley Justice Institute comes at a time of increased focus on the impact of marijuana-related convictions in the Keystone State. In September, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced that he would pardon convictions for eligible marijuana offenses, including some cases that include a nonviolent co-charge.
“Pennsylvanians convicted of simple marijuana charges are automatically disqualified for so many life opportunities: jobs, education, housing, special moments with family. This is wrong,” Wolf said in a statement from the governor’s office. “In Pennsylvania, we believe in second chances – I’m urging those eligible to apply now, don’t miss your chance to forge a new path.”
At a recent appearance in Monroe County, Wolf reiterated his support for legalizing marijuana despite a lack of attention on the matter from lawmakers, noting the good that comprehensive cannabis policy reform can foster in the state of Pennsylvania.
“To date, there has been no movement to advance legislation,” Wolf said last month. “So, I’m here today to ask again, and to focus on two particular benefits of legalization – potential economic growth and much-needed restorative justice.”
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