In a striking example of dissonance in public policy, the affluent suburb of Abington is welcoming a medical cannabis oil dispensary while marijuana arrests in the township have increased and targeted black residents.
The recent fanfare around multimillion-dollar permits to operate under Pennsylvania's limited medical cannabis oil law has overshadowed the alarming rise in arrests for simple marijuana possession across much of the Commonwealth.
Registered, card-carrying patients who can afford processed cannabis oil will have legal protection sometime next year. Anyone else who is holding some dried marijuana flowers –including medically qualified residents — could still be arrested.
In recent months, the township council in Abington spent time and energy passing zoning ordinances for medical cannabis oil dispensaries. Now, with state permit in hand, the company TerraVida is preparing to set up shop.
Meanwhile, data on drug-possession arrests in Abington are simply disturbing.
Last year Abington Township Police performed more than six times as many arrests for marijuana than for all other drug possession offenses combined.
Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System (PAUCRS) data from 2016 shows 316 marijuana arrests, 32 for opiates/cocaine, 16 for synthetics (including pills), and 2 for "other" drugs.
More than 80 percent of those arrested for less than 30 grams of cannabis are Millennials, between 18 and 29 years old.
The most notable trend in Abington is a strange and sudden flip in the race of people put into handcuffs for weed.
The second largest town in Montgomery County has about 55,000 residents, and an overwhelming majority (79 percent) are white.
Data from more than decade in PAUCRS shows Abington marijuana arrests being mostly white residents — right up until 2015. That's when a majority of arrestees were black.
The racial disparity widened further in 2016, when 116 of the adults arrested were white and 191 were black.
This trend is not normal. It could almost been seen as a smoking gun pointing at the reality of institutional racism within marijuana enforcement.
Black medical marijuana patients and black cannabis consumers must already navigate this minefield as they access the underground market today. And given the extreme restrictions and expense associated with Pennsylvania's dispensary system, most patients — especially those of low income — are likely to stay underground.
The sad reality in Abington next year will be a cannabis oil store opening to serve a select few, while most medical consumers continue to risk an ever more aggressive gauntlet of police.
Thankfully some cities, like Philadelphia, have already decriminalized marijuana possession. This not only saves taxpayers millions of dollars in enforcement, but also lifts some of the fear among the local patient communities. York, Pa., is the latest to see the light, with the town council voting Tuesday to downgrade penalties for possession of small quantities of marijuana..
Any city or town with a new cannabis-oil dispensary should seriously consider decriminalizing possession immediately, to put local policies more in balance.
Along with decriminalization, residents and leaders in Abington must take a hard look at the marijuana arrest data. Racial disparities this swift and profound could indicate much deeper issues with how police are interacting with any black residents. The township council might spend as much time looking at reducing arrests as they did zoning in a legal hash oil store.