Credit: Andy Colwell / for Billy Penn

Four years after marijuana possession was decriminalized in Philadelphia, two realities quietly persist:

Hundreds of cannabis buyers are still cuffed each year for purchasing weed, and despite decades of data that show black and white populations consume the herb at equal rates, racial disparities in the arrests remain stark.

2018 welcomed big strides for marijuana reform in Pennsylvania, from Harrisburg’s expansion of its medical program to a renewed push for statewide decriminalization. Even longtime ganja moderate Gov. Tom Wolf warmed up to “legalize it” policies that are being adopted in other states.

Meanwhile in Philly, District Attorney Larry Krasner halted most charges for possession of small amounts, adding to already dramatic declines in prosecution since city officials decriminalized the herb in 2014.

City of Brotherly Stoners? Not quite.

Black people in Philly, who make up roughly 44 percent of the population, comprised 76 percent of all arrests for marijuana possession in Philadelphia between 2015 and 2018, the first four calendar years since decrim, according to data from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System. That rate is the same among juveniles arrested on the same charges.

And for those caught in the act of purchasing the crop — which remains a criminal offense, albeit rarely charged in Philadelphia — the discrepancy is even higher.

In those same years, 81 percent of all buyers arrested at the handoff were black. That was 1,454 out of 1,796 people, according to data provided to Billy Penn by the Philadelphia Police Department.

In 2018, the racial scales appeared to tip even more. While arrest figures for December remain unavailable and were not included in this analysis, the first 11 months of the year showed 85 percent of all arrested purchasers were black.

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Police cannot explain the racial disparity

The racial disparity in marijuana law enforcement traces back decades. But in the era of more tolerant weed policies, the contrast is perhaps even more troubling, say attorneys and advocates.

“Given the equal use of marijuana by persons of different races, the fact that 80 percent of the arrests continue to be of Black suspects cannot be justified on the grounds that more Blacks than Whites possess marijuana,” David Rudovsky, a civil rights attorney who has sued the city over racial bias in policing, wrote in an email.

Philly isn’t alone. Statewide, black people Pennsylvanian were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for possession than white people in 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union found. Other big cities with lax marijuana laws still see the racial disparity among those arrested — and “explanations” run the gamut.

In New York City, police chalked up to gap to 911 calls coming from neighborhoods of color. (Reporters poked holes through that claim.) In a new report that found stunning racial disparities in Baltimore’s cannabis arrests  — 96 percent of those cuffed since statewide decriminalization were African American — a police official argued that most offenders were also booked on more serious charges than marijuana.

In Philly, PPD Captain Sekou Kinebrew says a large proportion of arrests for purchasing illegal drugs are part of broader investigations, typically focused on the purveyors rather than the buyers. He added the department continues to look at other factors.

“We are evaluating the data, along with continual examination of our policies and practices, to determine the contributing factors for the disparity,” Kinebrew told Billy Penn.

Lyandra Retacco, supervisor of the charging unit in the District Attorney’s Office, confirmed marijuana purchase charges “almost always” stem from a person caught by officers buying during a larger sting operation. She said the office unequivocally does not press charges in cases where the lowest level offense is purchasing marijuana.

“If it’s a street level hand-to-hand buy, we don’t think that’s fair,” Retacco said, adding that “the evidence is absolutely still used [to prosecute] the dealer on the street.”

Under Krasner’s new guidelines, prosecutors may still seek charges for possession under 30 grams — the threshold set by decriminalization ordinances in 2014 — if they believe there is intent to distribute. Conversely, individuals caught by police with more than 30 grams may not be charged evidence suggests the herb is for personal use, Retacco said.

Statewide, critics have little faith that law enforcement agencies across Pennsylvania can redress the racial disparities without full-scale decriminalization.

“[They] don’t have the will to fix it,” said Andy Hoover, spokesperson for the ACLU PA. “That’s why marijuana policy has to be taken out of their hands by wiping marijuana criminalization off the books.”

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Citations have soared — and remain unpaid

In 2010, facing around 5,000 cases related to marijuana possession each year, the District Attorney’s Office implemented a low-level diversion program to help ease the burden on the city’s criminal courts.

The Small Amount of Marijuana Program (SAM) offered participants an alternative to incarceration: plead guilty to a summary offense for disorderly conduct, take a weekend drug education class and pay a $200 fine.

The program garnered more than 3,200 participants by 2013. Two years later, after decriminalization ordinances went into effect, enrollment had dropped to just 756. Today, with few reportedly prosecuted for marijuana possession, Krasner’s office said the program is essentially obsolete.

Those thousands of would-be SAM participants — formerly known as people looking at hard jail time for simple weed possession — now represent another statistic: people who owe fines to the city.

Under the decriminalization ordinance, Philly police now hand out tickets to people caught with ($25) or consuming ($100) weed in public. Officers wrote just 184 tickets in 2014 after decriminalization went into effect. In the full 2017 calendar year? More than 4,200. Last year’s citations look like they will match that number, if not outpace it by a small margin.

The Office of Administrative Review, which oversees the citations, said that 4,017 tickets were issued in 2018. But that data is delayed four to six weeks.

However, only one in six offenders appear to be paying the fine. Of the nearly $400,000 in citations issued in the last two years, only about $68,000 have paid up. The Office of Administrative Review does not track race in its citations, officials have said.

Some advocates say fines for marijuana possession are better than arrests. But Mark A.R. Kleiman, a leading scholar on marijuana reform, doesn’t see fines deterring people from use. His argument? Legalize it.

“I don’t see any good purpose to be served by punishing consuming it as opposed to selling it,” Kleiman told Billy Penn in 2016. “Issuing uncollected fines is bad policy. You should not issue penalties that you don’t enforce.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article cited an incorrect statistic from a 2017 ACLU report on racial disparities in marijuana arrests across Pennsylvania. Black adults in Pennsylvania are 3.6 times more likely than white adults to be arrested for marijuana — not 8 times as the ACLU’s initial 2017 report stated, which was later corrected. 

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...