by Sam Wood,Dylan Purcell and Craig R. McCoy,Updated: October 4, 2018
Corey Thornton admits he gave little thought to the marijuana in his car as he drove along Germantown Pike near the Plymouth Meeting Mall in March.
He was heading home to Philadelphia, where police have essentially decriminalized marijuana possession — no longer arresting thousands a year for pot but issuing a like number of $25 civil citations instead.
“I’m not going to say that I’m not aware that it’s illegal,” said Thornton, 49, a restaurant manager. But “it’s not frowned upon as some of the other things going around.”
Thornton got his rude awakening when Plymouth Township police pulled him over because officers said they could smell marijuana as they drove behind him. Police confiscated a joint and three vials of marijuana.
With that midday bust, Thornton became an unwitting participant in a surprising regional phenomenon: Despite the nation’s growing acceptance of marijuana, police in the Philadelphia suburbs and in South Jersey are making more and more pot arrests.
Officers in the four suburban Pennsylvania counties next to Philadelphia arrested 3,100 people for marijuana possession last year — an 11 percent increase from the year before, court records show.
The trend is even more pronounced in South Jersey. In Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties, pot arrests jumped 40 percent from 2015 to 2016, the most recent years for which county figures are available.
The Inquirer’s review shows that African Americans make up an increasing share of those facing pot charges. Blacks are an estimated 40 percent of those arrested for marijuana in the region, even though they make up only 12 percent of the combined population of South Jersey and the city’s Pennsylvania suburbs.
Area police, prosecutors, and defense lawyers offer a range of explanations for the surge in marijuana arrests, which can saddle people with criminal records, hefty fines and legal bills, a suspended driver’s license, and trouble with employers.
In both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, recent state Supreme Court rulings have made it markedly easier for police to search for marijuana. The high courts in both states have decreed that police only need smell the pungent odor of weed to conduct an immediate search — without the need for a warrant from the judge.
“I think it’s class based,” said Wana Saadzoi, a former assistant district attorney in Delaware County who now works as a defense attorney. “The police are not pulling over an affluent black man or woman in parts of Devon if they’re driving a $150,000 vehicle.”
Wana Saadzoi is the President and Founder of The Law Offices of Wana Saadzoi. Her practice includes criminal defense, immigration, and crimmigration. She is a former assistant district attorney at Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, assistant public defender at Delaware County Public Defender’s Office, and law clerk to Judge George Pagano at the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. Wana graduated from Villanova University School of Law and Dickinson College.