Photo Credit: Releaf – UK Clinic
Marijuana Amnesty Project
Marijuana-Specific Charges and Convictions in Pennsylvania Ten Years of Filing and Conviction Data, April 2012 – April 2022
PLSE’s Marijuana Amnesty Project launched in October 2021 to combat the specific harms of criminal records in Philadelphia stemming from cannabis criminalization. One of the Marijuana Amnesty Project’s goals is to support as many low-income Philadelphians as possible through the Board of Pardons’ expedited review program for marijuana-related convictions.
As of August 23, 2022, the Board of Pardons has reported receiving 741 applications for its expedited review program since it began in 2019.1 Last year, when we asked the Board of Pardons how many people could benefit from expedited review, they reported that, right before the program’s launch in 2019, “the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) estimated that there had been roughly 57,000 such cases, mostly involving small amounts of marijuana, disposed of over the preceding 10 years.”
In March 2022, we contacted the AOPC ourselves, asking them to update and refine the data by including felony marijuana convictions – which qualify for expedited review – and eliminating marijuana convictions that included acts of violence, or potential violence, as part of the same event, which would in turn disqualify the marijuana conviction from expedited review.2 More broadly, we wanted to know the number of marijuana charges filed and convictions disposed in the last ten years, regardless of whether clemency and the Board of Pardons would be the best way to address them.
We formulated a data request in order to estimate the ten-year total of marijuana-related filings and convictions, including those that would qualify for the BOP’s special program. In particular, we asked for the statewide count of misdemeanor and felony convictions for marijuana for each of the last ten years, as well as the same count excluding those with a crime of violence and/or DUI as part of the same incident.3 We asked for this aggregate data to be organized by both year of conviction and by the offense tracking number, including those that would qualify for the BOP’s expedited review program, as well as their one-time Marijuana Pardon Project.
In addition to a count of convictions, we also asked for the number of new filings for the same statutes, allowing us to review how often prosecutors were bringing forward charges following marijuana-related arrests. Finally, while possessing small amounts of marijuana (approximately one ounce) has been decriminalized in Philadelphia since 2014, we also asked for a count of convictions and filings for Philadelphia County in particular, where the majority of our own work clearing criminal records is focused.
It took the AOPC’s data analyst 25 hours to do the coding and run the request, and we received the data on May 27, 2022. As you read the data, remember this is just for the period of April 22, 2012 to April 21, 2022 due to the AOPC’s limit on requesting data that is up to ten years old from the date of run. It also excludes misdemeanor marijuana convictions for possession over 30 grams for personal use because the case management systems accessed by the AOPC do not allow for an entry of drug type under this subsection.4 This means that the number of marijuana convictions and filings in the last ten years is even higher than the following counts.
From this data request, we learned that there were at least 70,710 total new marijuana convictions in the last ten years – 52,015 misdemeanor convictions and 18,695 felony convictions. 65,527 of them did not include DUI or a crime of violence as part of the same case, meaning they should qualify for the Board of Pardons’ expedited review program. Of the 65,527 convictions qualifying for expedited review, 47,172 of them were misdemeanors, and 18,355 were felony convictions. Notably, less than 2% of felony marijuana convictions – just 340 out of 18,695 – included DUI or a crime of violence as part of the same incident.
51,604 new misdemeanor convictions fell under the two statutes for the Board of Pardons’ Marijuana Pardon Project (35 Pa. Stat. § 780-113 A31 Poss Of Marijuana: 21,443; 35 Pa. Stat. § 780-113 A31I Marijuana Small Amount Personal Use: 30,161). 5,412 of those convictions were from Philadelphia County.
During the same period, there had been at least 245,654 new criminal prosecutions filed for misdemeanor possession, use, or distribution of small amounts of marijuana, and there were another 25,009 felony prosecutions for marijuana, bringing the total count of new filings to over 270,000. These numbers of convictions and prosecutions in just the past ten years alone are especially shocking because they occurred at exactly the same time that cities and municipalities across the Commonwealth have decriminalized possession for some amounts of marijuana, including Allentown, Bethlehem, Erie, Folcroft, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Steelton, and York.5 Even more shocking is the fact that there were almost four times as many filings as convictions, raising questions about the use of unproven charges to further saddle individuals with the burdens of a criminal record.
From a purely administrative standpoint, it is clear that the Board of Pardons’ existing expedited review program is unable to address the tens of thousands of marijuana convictions in just the last ten years. But the issue goes further. A recent review of 2021 arrest data provided by the Pennsylvania State Police showed that per capita, Black people in Pennsylvania are roughly five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.6 Because criminal records for marijuana are the result of the systemic failure of the racially-motivated war on drugs, Pennsylvania must step forward as a leader in systemic solutions as states across the country move forward with ending cannabis prohibition and legalizing recreational adult-use cannabis.
On July 8, 2022, PLSE submitted our Petition for General Pardon (Amnesty) to the Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General and Board of Pardons as one such solution. The statewide data provided by the AOPC supports the individual stories of our eleven Petitioners in essential ways, making obvious the need for a global, restorative response to the tragic consequences of our society’s decision to criminalize marijuana and its users, rather than regulate cannabis like alcohol.
If you are a researcher or otherwise interested in cannabis policy reform, we invite you to work with us in this area and to share your findings with us, so that together we may grow our effort to put an end to that past and enable new futures for the tens if not hundreds of thousands of people across the Commonwealth fighting to overcome their cannabis criminal records so that together, we may reach our highest collective potentials.
1 Expedited Non-Violent Marijuana Statistics to Date. Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. https://www.bop.pa.gov/Statistics/Pages/Expedited-Marijuana-Statistics.aspx. Accessed September 1, 2022.
2 “Crimes of violence” is defined by 37 Pa. Code § 81.202 and by the Board of Pardons in its regulations by 42 Pa.C.S. § 9714(g). We also excluded offenses that involve driving under the influence, as defined in 75 Pa.C.S. § 3802, which further disqualifies individuals from expedited review.
3 The misdemeanor convictions Title 35 P.S. § 780-113 Subsection A31, A31I, A31II, A31III; and Subsections A32, A33, and A34 where Marijuana is recorded as the drug type.
4 Title 35 Section 780-113 Subsection A16 (Int Poss Contr Subst by Per Not Reg).
5 Pennsylvania Local Decriminalization Map. NORML. https://norml.org/laws/local-decriminalization/pennsylvania-local-decriminalization/. Accessed July 26, 2022.
6 Goldstein, C. (2022). Pennsylvania Police Arrested Over 13,000 People for Marijuana Possession in 2021. https://norml.org/blog/2022/07/13/pennsylvania-police-arrested-over-13000-people-for-marijuana-possession-in-2021/. Accessed August 1, 2022.