PA: Why A Philly Councilman Wants To Stop Marijuana Testing For Parolees

Photo Credit: David Goldman

Councilman Derek Green last month proposed a change to Philadelphia drug policy: he wants to stop testing people on parole for pot use.

Making that change, he believes, would reduce Philly’s prison population and open up more treatment beds for people with addiction. But beyond those two initial goals, which Green said inspired his proposal, there’s another potential benefit to be gained by eliminating marijuana tests for parolees:

It could make a dent in the number of Philadelphians experiencing poverty.

Statistically, people who have been or are incarcerated are much more likely to experience economic hardship. And when parolees — people who are released early from prison on the condition of good behavior— test positive for marijuana, they can be sent back to jail or ordered into drug treatment.

From 1979 to 2012, people who had never been incarcerated earned substantially more money than people who were incarcerated at least once, and they completed an average of 2.3 more years of school.

“We’re trying to provide more opportunity and allow people to enter society,” Green said.

“When people lose their jobs because of this type of screening, that’s one less person in the city who can provide for their family.”

Saving money for the city

All taxpayers could benefit from the proposed law, because it has the potential to save the city money.

Eliminating the penalties for THC testing could possibly reduce Philly’s prison population by 1,000 people, per the Defender Association of Philadelphia. According to a 2017 Vera Institute report, that drop could save the city money — it costs $42,000 to incarcerate one person for a year.

And from 2011 to 2014, 20 percent of admissions to city drug treatment programs were for marijuana. The city spent nearly $30 million in 2014 for 8,363 admissions to drug treatment programs — 1,844 of them for marijuana.

Depending on the state

Green, an at-large councilperson, brought his case to council in a resolution passed on April 12.

Specifically, it asked the city’s Committee on Law and Government to host hearings on eliminating testing for THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and the penalties associated with a positive result.

The hearings, Green said, will provide information from criminal justice experts about whether the proposal could work in Philly.

However, no matter what the hearings find, a policy like this would likely have to be be implemented on a statewide level. That’s the opinion of Councilman Bill Greenlee, who chairs the Committee on Law and Government. “On this particular subject,” Greenlee told Billy Penn, “I’m open to hearing both sides.”

He anticipates a policy like this would have to be implemented on a statewide level. Whether the state would act to implement it is another question entirely.

The Pa. Department of Corrections refused to return repeated requests for comment on the feasibility of eliminating THC tests for people on parole.

Did it work elsewhere?

If Pa. did move forward with an idea like this, the state wouldn’t be a pioneer.

After legalizing recreational marijuana use in 2012, Washington state moved to stop testing people on parole for THC in 2013.

“We just followed the state law of recognizing that marijuana is a legal substance in this state,” said Washington DOC spokesperson Jeremy Barclay. He confirmed that the state Department of Corrections hasn’t kept any data on whether the change has reduced recidivism.

The number of Washingtonians experiencing poverty has decreased steadily since 2013, but there are too many contributing variables to say whether stopping pot testing was a factor.

With so little data on effectiveness, it’s unclear whether Philly politicians will choose to follow Washington’s lead. One study from Claremont College found there wasn’t a clear link between the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana and recidivism rates.

Still, supporters believe it could make an impact, both on the city’s prison population and on the daily lives of Philadelphians. In Philly, 25 percent of residents experienced poverty in 2016, and data show that people with lower incomes are more likely to be incarcerated.

The resolution is in its early stages — Green hasn’t yet scheduled a hearing, but he said he expects to do so before the end of the council session in June.