Racial inequity of pot arrests spurs ACLU call for legalizing drug in Pa.

Pennsylvania State Police vehicle

A Pennsylvania State Police car. (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

Backed by a new report showing stark differences in arrest rates for possessing marijuana, the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is calling on the state to legalize the drug.

Cannabis Crackdown,” released this week, looked at arrests for possession in each of the 67 counties of the Commonwealth between 2010 and 2016. It found the number of adults arrested during that span has noticeably increased, and that African-Americans are bearing the brunt of the uptick.

In 2016, African-Americans were eight times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than their white counterparts, despite using the drug at similar rates, according to the report. That’s up from 2010, when African-Americans were 6.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

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This “distressing” trend is a big reason why the ACLU said the state should stop arresting for possession and “legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana.”

“When people are arrested, this has a significant impact on their life. They have to fight the charges, obviously, and that leads to legal costs. It impacts employment, it impacts education and housing  — all for a plant that is increasingly believed should be legalized,” said Andrew Hoover, one of the report’s editors.

Excluding Philadelphia, arrests for possessing marijuana increased 33 percent in Pennsylvania between 2010 and 2016. There were 12,974 arrests for possession in 2010. By 2016, there were 17,289 arrests.

“Pennsylvania’s crackdown on marijuana — like the larger ‘War on Drugs’ that’s been waged on communities across the country for decades – is a failure,” the report concludes.

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In October 2014, Philadelphia effectively decriminalized small amounts of marijuana. Instead of making an arrest, officers now commonly write a citation carrying a $25 fine when they catch someone with less than 30 grams — about an ounce — of pot.

While hundreds in the city are still arrested for marijuana possession, the total has plummeted nearly 90 percent between 2010 and 2016, according to the report.

The Pennsylvania State Police Department, responsible for many of the arrests noted in the report, does not have a stance on legalization. A spokesman said the force has effective “internal protocols and regulations” prohibiting “bias-based” policing.

The report comes as Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana industry moves from concept to reality.

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