Despite widespread decriminalization ordinances, marijuana arrests have risen across Pennsylvania

Published on February 20, 2020 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Cannabis arrests in Pennsylvania have not declined despite decriminalization. (Victor Moussa/AdobeStock)

On a bitterly cold night in February 2015, Gillian Heintzelman left her job at Sacred Heart Hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and made her way to a nearby bar to meet her boyfriend and a friend. They stayed for a few minutes, and then left together to get a late-night dinner. They’d only driven a couple of blocks when their car was pulled over by the police.

Heintzelman, who was 29 at the time, recalled what happened next with a mix of anger and exasperation. “They ripped me out of the car and harassed me, asking me where the coke was,” she said. “I’ve never even done coke.”

She suspects that police were watching her on the city’s “blue-light” surveillance cameras and grew suspicious when they saw her leave the bar so quickly. The cops found roughly half of a gram of cannabis in her purse, worth about five dollars, and arrested her, as well as her friend who also had a small amount of cannabis on his person. “I felt like a criminal. I work at a hospital trying to help people,” Heintzelman told Leafly. “They made me feel like a piece of shit.”

Pennsylvania State Police did not respond to a request to comment.

Stories like Heintzelman’s are tragically common in Pennsylvania, even as more cities across the state—including Allentown—have passed ordinances to decriminalize possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis (a little over an ounce). In spite of these ordinances, arrests have persisted, and in some parts of the state, increased.

'Just make it legal!'

Nearly 22,000 people were arrested last year for possession of an ounce of cannabis, according to the Pennsylvania State Police. While some activists have cited that figure as a success—over 24,000 people were arrested the year prior, an all-time high—the number is still higher than it was before cities began decriminalizing small possession in 2015. Two main factors are at play: law enforcement’s blatant disregard of the ordinances, and their failure to accurately report their own data.

“It’s barbarism,” is how Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman (D) described the current system to Leafly. “Just make it legal!”

Ordinances spread across the state, but all residents are not equal

Since 2015, decriminalization ordinances have been passed in most of the state’s major cities: Philadelphia, Norristown, Erie, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, York, Lancaster, and Allentown. According to State Police data acquired by the Philadelphia Inquirer, there were 18,668 marijuana arrests in Pennsylvania in 2015. The number has risen steadily since then, despite the fact that Pennsylvania enacted its medical marijuana program in 2018 (there are currently 163,000 card-carrying patients in the system).

Across the state, people of color bear the brunt of the arrests, despite the fact that Black people make up only 12% of the state’s population. According to the ACLU, in 2016, Black Philadelphians were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Elsewhere in the state, they were 6.1 times more likely to be arrested.

Jeffrey Riedy, the Executive Director of Lehigh Valley NORML, argued that the price of medical marijuana is a significant factor. “The medical marijuana program isn’t serving [disenfranchised communities] in center cities,” he told Leafly. “It’s priced them out of the system, and they’re still going to the streets and getting busted.”

Nor is this racially-biased policing exclusive to Pennsylvania. After decriminalizing cannabis in 2012, Chicago police still arrested 44 people per day; 95% were Black or Hispanic.

Some police just DGAF

In some Pennsylvania cities that have passed de-crim ordinances, law enforcement blatantly disregards them. They are technically within their bounds, because state law trumps local ordinances. In Lehigh County, where Heintzelman lives, District Attorney Jim Martin insists that the local police force continue making arrests, which can carry up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.

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Martin also declined to comment for this article.

NORML’s Riedy, who was a driving force behind decriminalization measures in Lehigh and Northampton Counties, argues that the police often don’t know what products medical patients are legally allowed to possess. “They don’t know a street vape pen [from a] dispensary one. Until there’s education, we’re going to have disparity, and people wrongfully charged for possession of cannabis and cannabis products,” he said.

For Riedy, one of the most disturbing incidents of police misconduct occurred in 2018, when Gregory Longnecker, a middle-aged resident of Berks County, was crushed to death by a tractor driven by a cop who was chasing him through thick underbrush after spotting him with 10 marijuana plants. “His behavior was despicable,” Berks County DA John Adams said at the time, of the victim. “They yelled to him; they asked him to surrender. He did not surrender.”

“At that point it became aware to us [that law enforcement] was still fighting cannabis,” Riedy told Leafly. “Law enforcement for the most part doesn’t want to look at cannabis as a legal substance right now.”

Lieutenant Governor Fetterman has spoken with prohibitionist-minded district attorneys. What’s their argument for continuing to make arrests? “They really don’t have one,” he told Leafly.

Fudging the data

Police tactics aside, to some degree, the alleged rise in arrests is simply the result of poor data-keeping by law enforcement officials who’ve conflated citations with arrests. In the Philadelphia suburb of Abington Township, for instance, an in-depth study conducted by the police department yielded some embarrassing results.

“We found we were recording citations as arrests. That, for the most part, explains why our numbers looked so high,” Chief Pat Malloy told the Inquirer.

Elsewhere in the state, data submitted by local police forces to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program shows they overstated arrests by as much as 70 percent.

Mixed signals on progress

Despite these discouraging signs, there are still reasons for Pennsylvanians to be hopeful.

While district attorneys like Martin and Adams continue to enforce impractical and reckless policies, Philadelphia’s DA, Larry Krasner, has demonstrated that it’s possible for law enforcement to embrace the ordinance and drastically lower arrests; it has been nearly a year since a single person has been arrested for marijuana possession in the city.

Politicians and officials consistently argue that only statewide decriminalization or full-on legalization will ensure that sufficient change is enacted. “At the statewide level, you should immediately see a dramatic drop [in arrests],” Karen O’Keefe, the Director of State Policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Leafly.

Fetterman stressed the need for a uniform law across the state; he described the current system as “67 judicial microcosms” operating autonomously from each other.

Fortunately, legalization may be close at hand. Just last week, Representative Jake Wheatley (D-Pittsburgh) re-introduced his adult-use bill, HB 2050, which comes on the heels of two additional adult-use bills, HB 1899 and Senate Bill 350. An October 2019 poll revealed that 58% of Pennsylvanians support legalization.

'You know what bill I’m for? I’m for the bill that will pass the legislature.'

Fetterman, for one, stressed the need to get a bill passed ASAP, arguing that lawmakers always fine-tune it later.

“You know what bill I’m for? I’m for the bill that will pass the legislature,” he said. “The danger in states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey trying to hash this out, no pun intended, is that we’re going to let the perfect bill be the enemy of the one that can pass.”

As has been the case across the country, large-scale change depends on passionate individuals to get the job done, whether that’s vocal politicians like Fetterman, activists like Riedy, or individuals like Gillian Heintzelman who have experienced these disastrous policies firsthand.

Although her possession charge from 2015 prevents her from working in a dispensary, Heinzelman has found other ways to educate her fellow Pennslyvanians about cannabis; in 2018, she spoke before Allentown’s City Council, and helped ensure the passage of a decriminalization ordinance.

“My voice will always be heard now,” she told Leafly. “The more people we have on our side to advocate, the better. Eventually, these laws will change.”

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Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson likely has the lowest cannabis tolerance of any writer on the cannabis beat. He also writes about music for Pitchfork, Bandcamp and other bespectacled folk. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. His dream interview is Tyler the Creator.
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