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Study Finds Weed Cases Are Clogging Pennsylvania Courts

According to a study by a justice reform advocacy group, marijuana-related criminal cases are blocking local courts in Pennsylvania. This is putting unnecessary pressure on limited law enforcement resources.

Lehigh Valley Justice Institute is a non-partisan advocacy and research group located in Allentown. It reviewed 278,26 cases of criminal prosecutions in Lehigh County, Northampton County, and Northampton County from January 2018, to March 2021. The group’s analysis found that “marijuana criminalization slows our criminal justice system” and puts a strain on “understaffed public defenders” in the two jurisdictions.

A total of 4,559, or about one in six cases, included a marijuana offense according to the report. 96% involved a second non-violent offense or co-charge. It was also revealed that the average time it took to resolve marijuana-related court cases (166 days) was almost five months. It was found that the longest lasting marijuana-related case required 1,129 days to reach a conclusion in court. This is more than three years. The case also included one additional charge of disorderly conduct that was eventually withdrawn by the district attorney’s office.

Public Resource Waste 

Joe Welsh, the executive director at the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, said the report illustrates how prosecuting marijuana cases is expanding scarce public resources that could instead fund efforts to address “real crime.” Welsh also noted that nearby states including neighboring New Jersey have legalized adult-use cannabis, further illustrating the futility of continued prohibition. After Governor Phil Murphy’s February 2021 passage of recreational marijuana legislation, New Jersey began regulating adult-use cannabis sales in April.

“Police are spending time charging people with marijuana offenses. That’s time taken away from serious crimes like rapes, murders and assaults,” Welsh said. “Particularly, considering that you can walk across the Northampton Street Bridge between Easton and Phillipsburg and purchase marijuana.”

Pennsylvania’s state law classifies marijuana possession as an offense that can lead to a $500 fine and up to 30 day imprisonment. These charges were reduced to summary offenses by local laws that were passed in Allentown, Bethlehem, and Bethlehem in 2018. They do not need to be arrested. A summary offense conviction can result in a sentence that does not require a suspect to be arrested and a $25 fine for the first offense.

Local reforms are intended to allow law enforcement officers greater discretion in enforcing the marijuana prohibition laws. Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin has overridden the local reforms and required that all county police officers file state charges in relation to marijuana offenses.

“Local city councils do not have the power or authority to deviate from state law,” Martin told in an email. “The state law preempts the field. I took an oath to uphold the U.S. and Commonwealth constitutions; therefore, I don’t decide to enforce only the laws I choose to enforce. I enforce the law as written.”

Pennsylvania Governor Will Pardon Marijuana Consvictions

Lehigh Valley Justice Institute’s report comes as a result of greater attention being paid to the consequences of pot-related criminal convictions in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf made an announcement in September that he will pardon eligible marijuana offenses. 

“Pennsylvanians convicted of simple marijuana charges are automatically disqualified for so many life opportunities: jobs, education, housing, special moments with family. This is wrong,” Wolf said in a statement from the governor’s office. “In Pennsylvania, we believe in second chances – I’m urging those eligible to apply now, don’t miss your chance to forge a new path.”

Wolf made a recent public appearance in Monroe County and reiterated support for marijuana legalization despite lack of attention by lawmakers. Wolf also pointed out the benefits that comprehensive cannabis policy reforms can bring to Pennsylvania.

“To date, there has been no movement to advance legislation,” Wolf said last month. “So, I’m here today to ask again, and to focus on two particular benefits of legalization – potential economic growth and much-needed restorative justice.”