The Harm of Marijuana Prohibition

ACLU of Pennsylvania
4 min readSep 25, 2019

By Terrell Thomas and Andy Hoover

ACLU-PA’s Terrell Thomas (left) and Andy Hoover at last week’s In the Weeds event in Pittsburgh.

The criminalization of marijuana has unnecessarily created a lot of harm, particularly to people of color. That statement may seem obvious. But it was the message that we felt compelled to hammer at an event we attended last week with a few dozen policymakers, students, researchers, scientists, and reporters in Pittsburgh.

Titled “In the Weeds,” the event was a half-day symposium sponsored by the watchdog news outlet The Caucus that featured a keynote address by Lt. Governor John Fetterman and several panel discussions on the legal, financial, medical, and policy implications of our current marijuana laws and the many proposals to change them. We participated in a panel on the legal and financial angle with several attorneys and a state representative from Franklin County.

The harm of prohibition is real. Every year in Pennsylvania, more than 20,000 people are arrested for possession of marijuana, and the racial disparities in those arrests are significant — a Black person is nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession in Pennsylvania than a white person. Meanwhile, surveys consistently show that marijuana use is virtually the same among people of different races.

Consider Pittsburgh, where last week’s event was held. In 2018, there were 735 arrests for marijuana possession, according to data from Pennsylvania’s Uniform Crime Report. Black people were the subjects of 549 of those arrests. An astonishing 75 percent of people arrested for marijuana possession in Pittsburgh last year were African-American, in a city that is 25 percent Black.

There were 135 arrests of white people for marijuana possession last year in Pittsburgh. We can assure you that you can find more than 135 white people consuming cannabis on any Saturday night in Oakland or the South Side. Not that we’re advocating for their arrest, of course. But the point is that the arrest rate is so skewed because Black people are the targets of selective policing in Pittsburgh.

And the reverberations of those arrests are significant. Law enforcement officials and cannabis reform advocates say that it is rare for a person to be sentenced to jail time for marijuana possession. And while that may be true, there are still collateral…

ACLU of Pennsylvania

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.