Pittsburgh Sees Increase in Arrests for Marijuana Even After Decriminalization

When Pittsburgh City Councilors voted to decriminalize the possession of under 30 grams of marijuana three years ago, local police officers responded in kind, recording 160 fewer pot busts in 2016 than they had the previous year. One year later though, and Steel City cops went right back to their old tactics, with 772 small-time weed arrests on record in 2017. To make matters worse, of those 772 arrests, 551 were charged to African Americans, continuing in Pittsburgh’s long history of racially-biased policing. Despite accounting for just 24% of the city’s population, black residents account for 71% of minor weed arrests.

Because Pittsburgh’s decriminalization rule relies on individual police officer discretion regarding whether a suspect should be ticketed or arrested, local advocates argue that cops could be taking it upon themselves to uphold prohibition in the face of Pennsylvania’s statewide push for cannabis reform, even if most of those minor charges don’t end up being prosecuted. After only three months of medical cannabis sales, Mayors Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh and Jim Kenney of Philadelphia – the state’s two largest cities – have both offered official support for full adult-use legalization. “There has been research to show that it is beneficial to those that suffer from depression and other health issues, that may not be able to get a prescription or may feel that getting a prescription could jeopardize their future.”

But while total legalization will have to be enacted at a statewide level, fixing Pittsburgh’s decriminalization doctrine is a local matter. If you ask local activist Nightingale, stopping nearly 800 unnecessary arrests is as simple as rewording the 2015 City Council decree to require police officers to write possession tickets instead of piling on arrests.

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