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October 13, 2016

Activist: Philly's weed arrest stats reek of institutional racism

October 20 will mark two years of marijuana decriminalization in the City of Brotherly Love. 

But while marijuana arrests have dropped drastically – about 82 percent – since the city gave police the ability to ticket, not arrest, those caught with 30 grams or less of the drug, those arrested are overwhelmingly black, according to marijuana reform activist Chris Goldstein. He has been studying local, state and national statistics on cannabis arrests since 2008.

"Marijuana arrests are like the canary in the coal mine," said Goldstein of PhillyNORML. "It's the most reliable data to show that there is institutional racism." 

According to recent Uniform Crime figures compiled by Goldstein, in the two years since Philadelphia decriminalized cannabis about 750 people have been arrested for pot possession annually. 

About 1,400 citations for marijuana possession were given out just last year, he said. 

That's down from about 8,580 arrests for marijuana possession that occurred over the two years before cannabis was decriminalized here.

"That means [more than] seven thousand people have not been arrested, don't have to go to court, don't have to go to jail...," he said. "I think that's helping Philadelphia overall." 

Goldstein said that fewer arrests means less work for police and emergency responders, which equates to a savings of $9 million in the city's public safety budget over the past two years. Simply, the city's cost of writing a citation is far less than the cost of making an arrest.

Goldstein cited a recent study in Vermont that found that it cost the state about $1,266 per arrest for marijuana possession — not including costs of prosecution — before that state decriminalized the drug.

"But [for an officer] to give out a ticket, it just costs $20," said Goldstein. 

The statistics paint a stark racial disparity in such arrests, he said. Of the 750-or-so individuals arrested solely for possession of 30 grams or less last year, about 600 were African-American, Goldstein said.

"Though the overall number of arrests have dropped, the racial disparity is still there," said Goldstein, pointing out that Philadelphia officers have discretion in any situation to issue a citation or make an arrest.

"They can do either or at any moment," he said.

Goldstein emphasized that his analysis was for possession only, excluding cases where an individual was in possession of marijuana while committing a crime or in possession of more than 30 grams or other drugs. 

"They don't have a joint in their mouths while they are shooting a flame thrower at a gas station," Goldstein joked. 

The racial disparity is even more clear when looking at arrests for possession of other drugs, he said.

Both usage and arrest rates for heroin and cocaine, Goldstein said, were "about the same" between races. And, he said, usage rates of marijuana in Philadelphia also are similar among black and white individuals. 

"It's weird, but you see these real discrepancies," he said. 

Goldstein theorized that if usage rates are the same, police-encounter rates with individuals in possession of marijuana should be about the same regardless of race. 

"If you've been to a Phillies game or a Bob Dylan concert, you've seen whole crowds of white people [smoking weed]," he said. "But cops don't want to arrest them. I can't point to any other reason for [this racial discrepancy.]"

It's not just in Philadelphia. Goldstein said he's found similar disparities in arrest numbers in many cities, even in Colorado.

"These aren't individual cases, there are hundreds of thousands of these a year... I don't think it comes from personal racism," he said. "This is institutional racism." 

Goldstein said it's about time society takes a hard look at the criminal justice system. 

"The system comes down unfairly on black people," said Goldstein. "It's 2016. Black Lives Matter has shown we need a modernization, and a reset of our criminal justice system."

Goldstein likened updating the criminal justice system to America's steps to shake off the shackles of the monarchy during the American Revolution. 

"We've done this before," he said.