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Racial Disparities Continue in Philadelphia Marijuana Arrests

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PHILADELPHIA, PA – Marijuana arrests in 2012 Philadelphia continued with a distributing trend of racial disparity, according to figures released today by Philly NORML, the local affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Using data from the Pennsylvania Uniform CrimeReporting System, the chapter’s annual arrest report has been issued for the last seven years.

The report found that black cannabis consumers were arrested for marijuana possession in the city at five times the rate of whites, although black and white Americans consume marijuana at nearly equal rates and the population of Philadelphia is racially diverse.

In 2012, there were 6,614 marijuana related arrests in Philadelphia.  Of those, 4,272 were for simple possession of marijuana, with 3,052 of them black and only 629 white.  The report found that 90% of those arrested were male.

In contrast to the city numbers, state wide 71% of adults arrested in Pennsylvania for simple marijuana possession were white.

Alarmingly, the report also found that 18-34 year old residents made up about 75% of all marijuana possession arrests in Philadelphia.

Philly NORML Co-Chair Chris Goldstein released the following statement with the report:

Marijuana arrests in Philadelphia continue with a distributing trend of racial disparity. Black and white Americans consume marijuana at nearly equal rates and the city’s population is admirably diverse, yet it is residents of color who continue to be the focus of law enforcement.

Philadelphia is not alone but remains one of the most egregious in dispensing marijuana prohibition with a color bias. The ACLU issued a report earlier this year that highlighted the practice across the country.

Enforcement of marijuana possession laws tends to target young people. Data shows that 25-29 year old residents were arrested the most (705) and those 65 years and older the least (14). Overall, those age 18-34 comprised the bulk of cannabis possession arrests in Philadelphia.

The City of Brotherly Love also has the harshest prohibition policy in the Commonwealth to enforce: Mandatory custodial arrest (handcuffs and a holding cell) for any amount of marijuana.

In 2010 Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams worked with the PA Supreme Court and Association of Pennsylvania Courts to create the “Small Amount of Marijuana Program.” Saving the city almost three million dollars each year “SAM” sends most simple marijuana possession offenders (more than 80%) into two education classes and drops their charge to “disorderly person.”

However, the “SAM” program only comes into play after the person is taken away in handcuffs. Other counties in Pennsylvania treat marijuana possession as a summary offense, issuing a ticket and sending the offender on their way with a possible date in court.

Upholding this unnecessarily harsh treatment by putting more than four thousand Philadelphia residents into holding cells for small amounts of cannabis is still costing the city more than $2.5 million each year.

There are no statistical data sets or best-practices in law enforcement to justify the unique racial disparity for marijuana possession and sales/manufacturing arrests in Philadelphia.

The nearest comparable city in the database, Pittsburgh, showed racial equality to marijuana enforcement and they do not practice custodial arrest as a common policy for small amounts of cannabis.

The arrest statistics plainly indicate a pattern of targeted rather than equal enforcement, an issue that should be addressed immediately for the safety of the entire community.

The Philadelphia City Council should investigate, in public hearings, the implications and costs associated with marijuana prohibition enforcement.

The city government has the option to de-prioritize marijuana arrests as other cities have done around the country. State legislators have the option of decriminalizing cannabis for the entire Commonwealth. Both options would make cannabis possession a civil, non-criminal offense while separate efforts to fully legalize marijuana move forward.

Each year PhillyNORML brings the local arrest statistics to the attention of Philadelphia’s city government, Pennsylvania state elected officials and members of the United States Congress.

We urge our community and our elected officials to take any action feasible to immediately end criminal cannabis prohibition, stopping all of the arrests.