Inside The Push To End Marijuana Testing for Parolees in Philadelphia

By Paul Gaita 04/19/18

Removing pot penalties for parolees could free up space in the city's drug treatment centers for those with opioid addiction.

Urine Test Strips

Possession and use of less than 30 grams of marijuana will earn you only a citation in the city of Philadelphia, thanks to a decriminalization bill signed into law by then-mayor Michael Nutter in 2014. But if you're a parolee and test positive for THC, the cost can be much higher, including a return to jail or sentencing to drug treatment.

Philadelphia residents pay the price whenever an individual is sent to jail, which can cost up to $42,000 a year. A city councilman wants to end these penalties and drug testing of parolees, citing a greater need for resources to fight the opioid crisis in Philadelphia as well as the city's three-year plan to reduce its prison population.

Philadelphia City Councilman-at-Large Derek S. Green is seeking hearings on the issue. He believes that criminalizing people for cannabis diverts time, money and energy from more pressing issues facing the city. "Sending people to jail runs counter to the city's stated goal of reducing the prison population," he said.

Philadelphia's prison system was overcrowded for nearly two decades until a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2016 enabled the city to reduce its numbers to approximately 7,400 inmates—the lowest population in over a decade. Eliminating the penalties for THC testing could possibly reduce that number by 1,000, according to Kier Bradford-Grey, chief of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. 

Removing these penalties for parolees and those on probation could also free up space in the city's drug treatment centers to provide crucial assistance for those struggling with more deadly dependencies such as heroin or prescription opioids.

"Criminal justice is the single largest referral to drug treatment in Pennsylvania," said marijuana activist and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Chris Goldstein. "38% of those receiving treatment comes from the courts, and 25% of them are sent there for marijuana. In the middle of an opioid crisis, we can’t take up a quarter of treatment resources for marijuana." 

Councilman Green echoed Goldstein's assessment, stating that court referrals for marijuana "[take] away resources we could be using to treat opioid addiction."

According to Bradford-Grey, other cities have already enacted measures to stop testing parolees. "New York City stopped drug testing for THC a while ago," she noted.

And the state of Washington, where cannabis is legal for adult and medical use, hasn't tested its parolees since 2014.

At that time, Annmarie Alyward, assistant secretary of the state's Department of Corrections, said that the decision was made because "we don’t want [parolees] held at that level when, as a citizen, you wouldn’t be held to that level either."

Bradford-Grey believes that similar thinking could prevail in Philadelphia as well. "I'm hoping we catch on to the New York way," she said.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.