Possession-of-marijuana citations on the rise

Concerning trend since decriminalization in 2015 says advocacy group
March 4, 2019

The Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network is raising concerns over data showing court filings for cannabis possession continue to increase since decriminalization in 2015.

In a press release Feb. 6, Delaware CAN provided data from the Delaware Statistical Analysis Center showing marijuana possession-related offenses have gone from 4,765 in 2016 to 5,613 in 2017 and then 5,981 in 2018.

The center’s data, presented to Attorney General Kathy Jennings in a memo Jan. 11, also shows that offenses related to public consumption and consuming in a moving vehicle have steadily dropped from 65 in 2016, 43 in 2017 and 23 in 2018.

The increase in law enforcement contact for cannabis possession is a serious problem, reads the press release.

“Cannabis prohibition is the gateway into the criminal justice system,” said Delaware CAN President Zoë Patchell, in a prepared statement. “The data shows that in 2018 alone, an average of 13 people a day had police contact for cannabis possession, meaning that 13 times a day, law enforcement were pulled off the streets, away from real public safety needs, to process a non-violent, victimless cannabis possession offense.”  

Delaware criminal defense attorney Tom Donovan said he believes there is a fundamental problem treating cannabis possession as a criminal offense.

“The court system should focus on punishing real criminality, not burdening itself with collecting fines for something non-criminal like possessing cannabis,” said Donovan.

In an email Feb. 6, Attorney General spokesman Carl Kanefsky said this data reflects the intended effect of the legislation that decriminalized marijuana in 2015. Rather than adding more low-level drug offenders to the criminal justice system, he said, simple possession and paraphernalia arrests are increasingly being diverted away from criminal charges and toward civil citations.

Kanefsky said Attorney General Kathy Jennings understands and takes seriously the relationship between criminal justice reform and low-level drug offenses. The center’s memo exists in the first place because she requested marijuana arrest data as part of a larger review of the state of the criminal justice system, he said.

Kanefsky said more than 12,000 charges were civil rather than criminal over the last three years. In 2016, he said, civil citations were 71 percent of marijuana-related charges, while in 2018 they increased to 78 percent.

“While the Attorney General believes that Delaware still has work to do to achieve a more fair and equal criminal justice system, she also believes that the diversion of minor drug offenders from more severe consequences, including prison or charges resulting in criminal records, is a step in the right direction,” said Kanefsky.

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