In recent years, as a result of the semi-decriminalization of marijuana in 2014 in Philadelphia, nine out of ten marijuana infractions resulted in a citation rather than an arrest. The problem is, according to an ACLU report issued last year, despite decriminalization, communities of color are still disproportionately targeted by law enforcement in the city. New leadership in the city aims to change that.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, headed by one-time civil rights attorney Larry Krasner, released a memo instructing city prosecutors to drop all charges and dismiss any present or future cases involving less than 30 grams of marijuana.
A Promise To End Mass Incarceration
Back in February of this year, Krasner, who ran on a campaign promise to, among other things, end mass incarceration, told reporters, "What we're talking about is the ten percent or so that are charged, as they used to be, as misdemeanors in court. We are going to tell them to drop any cases that are simply marijuana possession — not selling, not possession with the intent to deliver."
According to a local news affiliate, the DA’s office dropped nearly 300 minor marijuana possession cases initiated since January.
Monday’s memo marks another step toward that promise according to Philly DA spokesman Ben Waxman. In a local news interview, Waxman said, “We’re getting to the six-month mark of the [Krasner] administration and we’ve made some public promises of how we’re going to handle certain cases.” Waxman called the move “a critical component of… focusing on serious cases that pose a threat to public safety. The hope is that people will not needlessly have interactions with the criminal justice system.”
A Disparate Number Of Young Black Men
Last year reports cropped up that Philadelphia police were charging a disparate number of young black men for cannabis possession in the city, despite the move to decriminalize marijuana. At the time the paper reported that of all arrests for cannabis in the city, “81 percent were black, 88 percent were men, and 62 percent were 18 to 29 years old.”
Also, according to the report, there were over 27,000 arrests for cannabis statewide last year, with only 20 percent of those high-level charges of drug selling or trafficking. Broken down, an average of 55 adults were arrested every day for cannabis possession, equal to all other drug arrests combined. Prosecuting all these cases comes at high cost to the state. According to the RAND Corporation one arrest for weed costs $1,266.
Although it may cost the state a lot of money, it can cost young people their future. Over 70 percent of those arrests are under the age of 30. After paying fines and being placed on probation, and required to undergo mandatory drug testing, these millennials are saddled with a misdemeanor on their record, making it difficult to find a job.
According to one report, “Pennsylvania’s newly-implemented medical marijuana program is picking up steam, but with a relatively strict set of qualifying conditions and high prices at dispensaries, local leaders are already looking towards total legalization as both a financial opportunity and social necessity.”
A Growing Trend In Northeastern Cities
Prosecutors from New York City and Brooklyn also recently announced similar policy changes. Since August 1 in Manhattan, anyone found in possession of marijuana will no longer be prosecuted. Before that, the office circulated the “decline to prosecute” policy to the New York Police Department (NYPD) and all Manhattan assistant district attorneys.
Like Manhattan, Brooklyn began its own non-prosecution pilot program from January to June 2018. During that time, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez showed a dramatic 91 percent reduction in marijuana prosecution cases. After the pilot, Gonzalez said, “I intend to maintain this approach and to only prosecute the most egregious offenses, which will help ensure fairness and equal justice.”
In addition to Krasner’s announcement about dropping cannabis possession cases, the new District Attorney also announced a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies in relation to the ongoing opioid crisis. According to Krasner, both moves are related.
“We have three to four Philadelphians dying every single day from fatal drug overdoses, probably 80 percent of them from opioid-related deaths,” he said. “There’s a direct relation between reducing opioids and opiate deaths and making marijuana available.”