Is it time to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania?

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Is it time to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania? Photo via herb.co.

Citations and charges can ruin lives. It can be traffic tickets with fines too high to afford, disorderly conduct charges, other non-violent offenses, or even violent offenses that reflect an earlier time in someone’s life before they had a chance to grow up and reform. Any entrance into the criminal justice system can be an automatic ticket to second-class citizenship — a way for employers to discriminate, for judges to make unfair sentencing decisions, and for peers to judge.

As part of ACLU-PA’s efforts to reduce the commonwealth’s incarceration rate, it’s our goal to lessen the number of people ensnared into the criminal justice system. We consider Pennsylvania’s marijuana laws to be low-hanging fruit in that regard.

While a recent Franklin & Marshall poll found that 59 percent of Pennsylvania residents believe marijuana should be legal, retrograde laws nonetheless trap thousands of people in the criminal justice system for pot-related offenses every year. And those numbers have risen in recent years.

Over the last several months, we’ve worked with marijuana advocates and data specialists to quantify Pennsylvania’s cannabis crackdown. And on Monday, October 16, we plan to reveal what we’ve found during a press conference at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

Stay tuned for more about Pennsylvania’s cannabis crackdown.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross has some explaining to do. Photo via The Philadelphia Inquirer.

  • Philly.com: “Study: High rates of stop-and-frisk even in Philly’s lowest-crime black areas”

“It’s not just black people, but entire, predominantly black, neighborhoods that are disproportionately impacted by the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of stop-and-frisk. That’s a key finding of a new analysis of police data from 2014 to 2015 by Lance Hannon, a Villanova University professor of sociology and criminology who began analyzing publicly available police data after the presidential candidates clashed over the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk in debates last year. He found that mostly black neighborhoods drew 70 percent more frisks than nonblack areas, yet yielded less contraband. And, he discovered, the elevated rate of frisking was consistent whether the predominantly black neighborhood was a high-crime area or a very low-crime area. Although many African American neighborhoods in the city have low crime rates, he said, ‘People, police officers, and nonpolice officers tend to judge the dangerousness of a place based on racial predominance. When they think of a black area as being dangerous, they are thinking of the outliers — and all the other neighborhoods that are relatively safe get painted with the same brush.’”

  • Bloomberg: “Prison Video Visits Are No Substitute for Face-to-Face, Especially at These Prices”

“There are 650 U.S. correctional facilities offering some form of video viewing. Like Tazewell, most are county jails, and three-quarters have eliminated in-person visits, often as a stipulation of their contract with the company charging for the video feeds. Tazewell did so in 2014, when it hired Securus Technologies Inc., a prison phone company that now controls about a third of the video market. The business has been lucrative enough to attract the attention of the private equity world. In February, Platinum Equity LLC, the firm run by Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, agreed to buy Securus for $1.6 billion, more than double the company’s 2012 valuation. The proposed deal has come under scrutiny from both regulatory commissions and prisoners’ advocates, delaying its likely approval.”

  • TeenVogue: “Why Young Girls Die Behind Bars”

“Arrests of young women during fights with family members such as the one that led to Gynnya’s incarceration are unfortunately all too frequent. According to Unintended Consequences, a report by the National Girls Initiative of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, ‘under state domestic violence laws, many law enforcement officers, arriving in homes in which girls are fighting with their parents or caregivers … often respond by making an arrest.’ As a result, ‘in-home conflict is a significant pathway for girls’ involvement in the justice system and many of girls’ arrests are for simple assault of their mothers or caregivers with no or minor injury.’ In fact, one study of 320 domestic violence calls in Massachusetts found that police were more likely to arrest young women in cases of disputes with parents and among siblings than between intimate partners.Nationally, girls of color are disproportionately arrested for assaults of family members in their homes. In Washington State, Black and Native youth are arrested for assault at a rate between 2 and 4 times greater than white youth.”

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The work of defending civil liberties goes on

ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford addresses the crowd at the “Show Love for the Constitution” event. | February 15, 2017. (credit: Ben Bowens)

Dear supporter,

In some ways, our country changed on November 8. The United States elected a leader who, by all measures, is hostile to the basic foundations and principles that we stand for. President Trump and his regime deserve every ounce of pushback we can gather, and the ACLU will be on the front lines of the resistance.

And yet, at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we have always taken the long view. Issues that are with us today were with us before November 8 and, to one degree or another, would have continued regardless of who was elected, including mass incarceration, police brutality, inequality for gay and transgender people, and efforts to compromise women’s access to reproductive healthcare.

You may have heard that there has been a major increase in giving to the ACLU since the election. While much of that growth has occurred at the national level, in fact, here in Pennsylvania, our membership has tripled. We saw a notable rise in donations after Election Day, but the real surge of giving happened after the weekend of the Muslim Ban. It was in that moment that many Pennsylvanians realized the significance of the threat to our values and to the people we most cherish.

You have put your trust in the ACLU in these challenging times. We are grateful for that trust and take it as a responsibility. Thank you.

The generous outpouring of support we’ve received in recent months has allowed us to think big about our work. It is my intention to add new staff to our existing staff of 22. Our current team has the talent, skills, and persistence to take on the many challenges before us. I also know that we can advance the cause of civil liberties throughout Pennsylvania by bringing even more talented people on board. The times demand it. Your support enables it.

In the months ahead, you’ll hear more about our Smart Justice campaign, our effort to reform, reinvent, and revamp the criminal justice system; our Transgender Public Education and Advocacy Project; the campaign for District Attorney in Philadelphia; the many bills we’re advocating for and against at the state capitol; and more litigation to push back against government excesses wherever they occur.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is prepared to thwart the Trump administration’s worst instincts as they play out in the commonwealth.

And state and municipal officials aren’t off the hook. We’re working with immigrant communities to monitor federal immigration enforcement tactics while also standing with municipal governments that insist they won’t bend to every demand of ICE. We’re insisting that the commonwealth keeps its commitment to open beds for people who are too ill to stand trial and are being warehoused in local jails. We’re working at the state legislature to defeat efforts to hide the identity of police who seriously injure and kill people and to hide video that captures police brutality from the public. And we are active in ongoing struggles to diminish police presence in schools, to stop rollbacks of women’s reproductive healthcare, and to fight the practice of jailing people for their debts.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has the infrastructure and the experience to defend civil rights at every turn. Consider some of our recent work:

  • Our legal team successfully freed travelers who were detained at Philadelphia International Airport the weekend of Muslim Ban 1.0, our advocacy team supported the protests at airports in Philly and Pittsburgh, and our communications staff echoed the message to #LetThemIn.
  • Two weeks ago, we settled a lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster for denying enrollment at its regular high school for older refugee students. Older refugee students will now be able to attend the regular high school instead of being segregated at an alternative school.
  • Over the last month, our legislative director has been busy at the state capitol in Harrisburg lobbying against efforts to reinstate mandatory minimum sentencing, which has been suspended for two years due to court rulings.
  • In tandem with allies, our advocacy team has launched the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney, an effort to push the candidates for district attorney to commit to reforming the criminal justice system.
  • Last week, our lawyers filed to intervene to defend a school in Berks County that has been sued for affirming its students’ gender identity. We’re representing a transgender student and a youth advocacy organization who would be harmed if the lawsuit successfully overturns the school’s practice.

These five examples are just from the last two months. In fact, four of them happened in the last two weeks.

My favorite playwright, Pittsburgh native August Wilson, said this about gratitude in his play Two Trains Running:  “You walking around here with a ten-gallon bucket. Somebody put a little cupful in and you get mad ’cause it’s empty. You can’t go through life carrying a ten-gallon bucket. Get you a little cup. That’s all you need. Get you a little cup and somebody put a bit in and it’s half-full.”

Well, thanks to you, our ten-gallon bucket runneth over.

Onward!

Reggie Shuford
Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Marijuana Deform at the State Capitol

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Weed_Capitol_AH

In June of last year, members of the state House received this co-sponsorship memo from one of their colleagues. The opening paragraph reads:

I hope you join me in sponsoring legislation that will reduce the penalty for a first or second offense of possessing a small quantity of marijuana (under 30 grams) from a misdemeanor to a summary offense. Downgrading this offense from a misdemeanor to a summary offense would have a positive effect on local law enforcement efforts, allowing police and prosecutors to focus their time and resources on more serious offenses.

At first glance, you might think, ‘Wow! This is progress.’ The memo concludes:

As a former law enforcement officer, I strongly believe in cracking down on drug dealers and those who prey on the young or weak with drugs. But those defendants are addressed elsewhere in the Controlled Substances Act. For individuals who merely possess small amounts of marijuana, I believe this adjusted grading makes sense, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars in court costs.

‘Reason is breaking out at the General Assembly,’ you’re thinking.

Well, don’t get out your Ben Harper records and get ready to burn one down just yet. Like anything at the legislature, details matter. And the details here ain’t good.

House Bill 1422, introduced by Representative Barry Jozwiak of Berks County, does indeed lower the grading of possession of a small amount of marijuana, defined as less than 30 grams. Of course, a summary offense is still a criminal offense, though it is the lowest Pennsylvania can go in state law, short of full-blown legalization.

But that’s not the real story with HB 1422. The real story is the massive increase in the fines for possession. Under current law, a person charged with possession faces a maximum fine of $500. There is no minimum fine. According to Jozwiak’s own co-sponsorship memo, the typical fine is around $200.

His bill, though, turns that concept on its head and institutes a minimum fine of $500. With no maximum fine. And it climbs from there. For a second offense, the minimum fine is $750, and a third offense brings a minimum fine of $1000.

If you’re a member of the ACLU or have any cursory knowledge about civil rights, you can see where this is going. If implemented, HB 1422 gives the police perverse incentive to excessively stop, search, and harass people to generate revenue from marijuana users, people who are no more danger (and maybe less) to public safety than people who use the legal drug of alcohol. (Access to which the legislature just expanded. FYI.) And that will disproportionately impact people of color and people from certain neighborhoods.

This is not mere conjecture. In 2013, the ACLU released our report The War on Marijuana in Black and White. The report analyzed nationwide data on arrests for marijuana and found that Pennsylvania had the sixth-highest rate of racial disparity in marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010. A black Pennsylvanian was nearly six times more likely than a white Pennsylvanian to be arrested for a marijuana offense, even though research consistently shows parity in usage among people of different races.

Plus, without a ceiling set on the fine, it is easy to imagine some cowboy judge who thinks that the War on Drugs was a swell idea dishing out fines of thousands of dollars for a single offense. After all, the bill gives judges discretion to implement any fine they want, as long as it is not below $500.

Of course, this is going in the exact opposite direction of the national trend. In December, Delaware became the 19th state to decriminalize marijuana possession, creating a civil offense with a fine not exceeding $100. Maryland followed in February. In November, Maine, Florida, and Nevada will vote on ballot initiatives to start some form of legalization.

Meanwhile, the city of Philadelphia has saved millions of dollars with its local decriminalization ordinance that created a civil offense with a fine of $25 for possession and $100 for smoking in public. And in 2015, Colorado generated $135 million in tax revenue from its tax-and-regulate initiative.

I give Rep. Jozwiak and the House Judiciary Committee credit for continuing to think about ways to reform marijuana laws. But tagging cannabis users with fines many times larger than current law is not the way to go.

There is a smart way to do this. Representative Ed Gainey of Pittsburgh has introduced House Bill 2076. That bill also lowers the grading of possession to a summary offense and lowers the maximum fine to $100 without risk of incarceration or the suspension of the person’s driver’s license, which is currently one of the penalties for possession.

Two months ago, the legislature acknowledged the reality that cannabis can help patients by passing Senate Bill 3, what became Act 16. It was a small but significant recognition that the commonwealth has handled marijuana in the wrong way for decades. It’s time to fix the mistakes that have been made and get smart on cannabis.


Andy_Blog_HeadhshotAndy Hoover joined the ACLU of Pennsylvania in December 2004, as a community organizer and became legislative director in 2008. As the organization’s lead lobbyist, Andy largely deals with civil liberties and civil rights issues at the state capitol.

What War on Marijuana?

By Ngani Ndimbie, Community Organizer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(credit: aclu.org)

(credit: aclu.org)

HOT TIP: If you want to smoke marijuana without consequence, be sure to find the biggest house in the whitest neighborhood of your Pennsylvania town and smoke there.

I’ve been hanging on to this not-so-secret secret for 10 years now. But I’ve decided to get the word out for the sake of Pennsylvania’s youth and their futures.

Growing up in an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood, I got to experience the injustices of the War on Marijuana firsthand.

Picture me as a 17-year-old in a smoky basement of some large home in my Squirrel Hill neighborhood on a weekday after school, hanging out with my friends, feeling calm yet conflicted. On the weekends, I regularly volunteered by registering young voters and talking to my peers about issues and policies affecting them, like the War on Marijuana. When I was conversing with other black youth, they’d occasionally offer a story about how the enforcement of marijuana laws affected them, their friends, or their neighborhoods.

And in my neighborhood? What War on Marijuana? Marijuana was (and is) readily available and regularly enjoyed in Squirrel Hill and other predominantly white neighborhoods throughout Pennsylvania. But Pennsylvania’s war on drugs is not being waged on the white and wealthy.

Last summer, the ACLU released a report titled “The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests.” It is the first report to ever look at nationwide, state, and county arrest data by race.

Arrest data show that in Pennsylvania, black people are 5.2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. And in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, black people are 5.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession.

In Philadelphia, our recent analysis of city-wide marijuana arrest data, performed as part of our stop-and-frisk lawsuit, showed the same pattern. 84.4 per cent of people arrested in Philadelphia for marijuana possession were black (43.4 per cent of the population) while white people (36.9 per cent of the population) comprised only 5.8 per cent of the arrests. Oh, and guess who was arrested in the predominantly white areas of the Philadelphia. Yeah, mostly black people.

Law enforcement across Pennsylvania has clearly focused on race rather than behavior when enforcing marijuana laws. Equal enforcement of the laws would see police on every block and in every neighborhood.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is calling for decriminalizing personal possession of marijuana. It’s time that we stop this expensive, racially biased, ineffective War on Marijuana in Pennsylvania.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.