Policing Pot

Just two years after Senate Bill 350 was introduced, the state of Pennsylvania itself enacted law SB 3, legalizing medicinal marijuana use.

a graph of marijuana on a white background

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The Controlled Substances Act regulates and imposes mandatory minimum sentencing for sales, possession, or manufacturing of marijuana. First offense for possession of any amount of marijuana, for example, carries a federal mandatory minimum sentence of one year in jail with a maximum fine of up to $1,000. In 2019, the average sentence for someone convicted of possession was 85 months. Such excessive punishment strips away personal liberties and create barriers to future education and employment opportunities. African Americans are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for possessing marijuana.

Despite restrictive federal regulations, lawmakers in most states have enacted legislation in direct defiance of the federal government. Forty-four states have created laws allowing medicinal and recreational marijuana use or decriminalizing sales, possession, and manufacturing, replacing criminal charges with less severe penalties. For example, in 2014, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania introduced Senate Bill 350 decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana possession to a $25 fine.

In the graph above, Nguyen Tran and his team compares monthly arrest rates in Philadelphia County before and after decriminalization with Dauphin County, a region in Pennsylvania that never decriminalized marijuana possession.

Philadelphia County reported a 35% decrease in arrests for marijuana-related crimes, a 43% reduction in arrests for possession, and a 16% decrease in arrests for sales or manufacturing following decriminalization. Although African Americans experienced the greatest reductions in arrests for possession, they experienced an increase in arrests for sales and manufacturing. As expected, there was no change over time in Dauphin County.

Outcomes like these continue to inspire progressive marijuana laws across the 50 states. Just two years after Senate Bill 350 was introduced, the state of Pennsylvania itself enacted law SB 3, legalizing medicinal marijuana use. Pennsylvania lawmakers recently proposed additional laws to fully legalize marijuana use statewide.

Despite the benefits of decriminalization, Nguyen and his team noted that the increase in arrests of African Americans may reflect lingering systemic biases in policing practices that negatively affect this population’s health.

Tran, N., Goldstein, N., Purtle, J., Massey, P., Lankenau, S., Suder, J., & Tabb, L. The heterogeneous effect of marijuana decriminalization policy on arrest rates in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2009–2018. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 15 May 2020. Data visualization by Tasha McAbee.