As police combat an epidemic of heroin overdoses, fewer people are landing in jail in Pennsylvania for possessing marijuana, a reflection of a change in battle tactics and attitudes about the drug, experts say.
“The nation is clearly taking a long, hard look at this. … There’s blowback on the war on drugs,” said Tony Gaskew, a former drug agent and director of the University of Pittsburgh’s criminal justice program. “Is it cost effective? We cannot arrest every person that wants to get high.”
More than 4,900 people were jailed in Pennsylvania last year on drug charges involving marijuana, a nearly 5 percent decrease from the 5,157 people sentenced in pot-related cases in 2013, according to the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. Meanwhile, jail sentences for heroin increased more than 30 percent, from 3,527 in 2013 to 4,693.
It’s a trend experts expect to continue.
As the death toll from heroin rises, marijuana moves lower on priority lists, police say.
“We do have to prioritize,” said Tony Marcocci, a Westmoreland County detective who spent three decades in the trenches of the war on drugs. “Sometimes it’s a difficult decision. Do I investigate a kid who’s smoking marijuana or one who’s selling heroin?”
Although heroin has dominated recent headlines in Western Pennsylvania, Marcocci said authorities are battling a lot of other deadly drugs, including methamphetamine, crack cocaine and Molly, a hallucinogenic mix of Ecstasy, meth and other chemicals.
“We have our hands full. … It’s complete insanity on our streets,” he said. “Every day it’s something new. We try to be proactive, but we’re becoming reactive.”
Across the nation, marijuana-related arrests have declined while heroin arrests have increased, FBI statistics show.
In 2011, the FBI said 15.6 percent of the more than 1.5 million drug arrests were for heroin, compared with 48.5 percent for marijuana. By 2013, the percentage of arrests for heroin had increased to 17.4 percent and marijuana arrests dipped to 45 percent.
“I agree that local law enforcement is not treating cannabis as a priority. … I cannot recall the last time I represented a client who was actually arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana,” said Patrick Nightingale, an attorney and executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
“If it lands in their lap, they’ll pursue it,” he said. “but they just don’t have the time to deal with smaller amounts.”
That reflects part of a national dialogue about how police make drug arrests, Gaskew said — not intentionally making fewer arrests but re-evaluating how they go about them.
“Is making a simple drug possession arrest solely on marijuana worth it?” asked Gaskew, who served on the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, the centerpiece of the Department of Justice’s drug strategy.
The shift in strategy concerns people fighting to keep marijuana off the streets. They say police need to remain vigilant because marijuana can be a gateway to other drugs and it is more powerful today than the version sold in the 1960s.
“It concerns me on a lot of levels. … The perception of harmfulness has been falling,” said Eric Voth, a Kansas internist and chairman of the Institute on Global Drug Policy, a national alliance of physicians, scientists, attorneys and drug specialists pushing public policies to curtail the use of illicit drugs.
“None of the people addicted to heroin started on heroin,” said Carla D. Lowe, founder of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, a group founded in California five years ago to fight legalization.
One police chief said he can’t ignore that marijuana remains illegal in Pennsylvania.
“If you pass up arresting someone (possessing marijuana) because it has been decriminalized in some other states, or because of some personal feeling, I believe that is a very slippery slope. If anything, if a department around here is reporting more heroin arrests than marijuana arrests, I personally believe the reason is because heroin is more readily available,” said Southwest Regional Police Chief John Hartman, whose Belle Vernon-based department serves Newell in Fayette County and towns in Washington and Greene counties.
Prioritizing makes sense for police departments strapped with tight budgets, “but it is also indicative of the increasing majority of Americans who want marijuana prohibition to end,” said Morgan Fox, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington–based group working to increase public support for legalization.
Some cities have changed the way they chase down pot smokers. Philadelphia, for example, last year decriminalized possession of as much as an ounce of the drug.
In Churchill, it’s a matter of priorities.
“We don’t have time to deal with (small amounts of marijuana); we’re strapped,” said police Chief Allen Park. “We’ll destroy their marijuana, give them a citation for disorderly conduct and send them on their way.”
Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.