Whether it is more people using, stronger enforcement or a combination of both nearly 40 percent more people will be charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana in 2016 than last year, according to an analysis of court records conducted by The Sentinel.
Those cases have doubled since 2013, according to court records.
“We are seeing a lot of younger people being caught with it,” Hampden Township Police Chief Steven Junkin said. “When you talk to those people, marijuana is more acceptable to them. They’re told there’s no big deal to it.”
The charge is defined as having possession of no more than 30 grams of marijuana and is punishable by up to 30 days in prison and an up to $500 fine.
A little more than 500 cases in 2015 included the charge of possession of a small amount of marijuana, according to court records.
As of Dec. 5, that number had already surpassed 660 for 2016 and is expected to eclipse 700 by the end of the year.
“I want to know a little bit more about where those small-amount cases are coming from,” Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed said. “What sort of police-citizen interaction is generating those cases?”
The largest increase, an estimated 82 additional cases, also included a DUI charge, according to court records.
This equates to a nearly 75 percent increase from the year prior.
Recent judicial decisions have made it easier for police to search vehicles if they have reason to believe there is marijuana in the vehicle, Junkin said.
“We are currently in one of those times where court decisions have said that because of the ability to move, we now have the ability to search a car for contraband if either a) we see it or b) basically have plain smell,” Junkin said. “So if I walk up on a car and I smell marijuana and it smells recent and it’s a certain level, I can search the interior of the car where marijuana may be secreted.”
Junkin said this has allowed officers to conduct more searches which have resulted in more charges.
Cumberland County is also seeing older officers retire and be replaced by younger officers who tend to spend more time conducting traffic enforcement, Junkin said.
“In talking to some of the other chiefs, a lot of us are seeing flip in our workforce,” he said. “We’re losing older guys and we’re getting younger guys. Younger police officers tend to engage in more traffic stops than older. There is an increased probability that with the higher number of stops you’re going to come across more people engaging in that activity.”
Pennsylvania law provides for a distinction between possession for personal use, possession with intent to deliver and actual delivery of a small amount of marijuana.
Only seven of those cases in 2016 were charged as possession intent to deliver and none were charged as actual delivery.
The remaining roughly 650 cases were classified as possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use only, according to The Sentinel’s analysis.
More than 250 cases in Cumberland County are expected to include possession of a small amount of marijuana and potentially possession of drug paraphernalia as the only charges involved, according to The Sentinel analysis.
The average defendant in the system by Dec. 5 was 26 years old when charges were filed and 76 percent of all defendants were less than 30 years old in those cases, court records show.
Possession of a small amount of marijuana only cases have doubled since 2013 in Cumberland County.
For comparison, during the same time similar cases have increased by 4 percent in Perry County and by roughly 200 percent in Adams County, according to court records.
DUI arrests that include possession of a small amount of marijuana have gone up roughly 600 percent since 2013 in Adams County, court records show.
“I think culturally, whether it’s against the law in Pennsylvania or not, people see what’s going on around the country and they have a lot less trepidation about carrying it with them,” Freed said.
Coupled with a relaxed public perception on marijuana use is a possible increase in police enforcement.
In 2005, about 83 percent of incidents of marijuana possession resulted in criminal charges in Cumberland County, according to the Pennsylvania State Police Uniform Crime Reporting System.
By 2015, roughly 97 percent of those incidents resulted in criminal charges — a 14 percentage point increase — according to the UCR.
Efforts have been made at both the local and state level in Pennsylvania to decriminalize possession of a small amount of marijuana.
Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have all passed ordinances that remove jail time as a possible punishment and impose only a fine.
Similar bills have been introduced in the Legislature, but have garnered little traction.
“If the Legislature wanted to go and make possession of a small amount of marijuana a non-traffic citation and handled like an underage drinking ticket, I think that you would see, it would certainly be a great reduction in time and paperwork expended on that effort,” Junkin said. “I don’t think you would get too much push back from too many police departments.”
Until the laws are changed, however, Junkin said his officers will continue to enforce the law as it is written.
“It’s illegal,” Junkin said. “…What laws aren’t we supposed to enforce. I’ve been a stickler with my guys that if they are going to infringe on someone’s freedom by searching their car, and the commonwealth says they can search the car, then if they find something, they are going to follow through with the proper charging documents.
“What happens then if you don’t is you open yourself up to abuses where guys are searching and keep expanding what they consider probable cause,” he said. “If they are not held accountable to typing out an affidavit and swearing to a court about what they found, you open yourself to abuses.”