Pittsburgh decriminalizes marijuana possession

by Chris Potter | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh City Council is ending its 2015 legislative session on a high note, having voted Monday morning to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana within city limits.

Council voted 7-2 in favor of a bill, sponsored by Councilman Daniel Lavelle, that allows police to levy a fine of up to $100 against anyone possessing up to 30 grams of marijuana or 8 grams of hashish. In the case of minors, parents or guardians will be notified of the offense and must pay the fine.

Supporters say that’s better than charging suspects with a misdemeanor criminal offense, which can saddle defendants with a potentially job-killing rap sheet and burden police with paperwork.

Mayor Bill Peduto has pledged to sign the bill: A spokesman called it “a common-sense change that will help protect the futures of young people.”

Patrick Nightingale, a marijuana reform activist, hailed the measure, which is similar to a Philadelphia ordinance passed in 2014. The legislation “will protect Pittsburghers of all colors and all ages from unwarranted and unnecessary police interactions, and it will help police more efficiently utilize limited resources,” he said.

According to a 2013 national American Civil Liberties Union report, African-Americans in Allegheny County are 5.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white residents, though use of the drug is consistent across racial groups.

One of the bill’s supporters, Councilman Ricky Burgess, said Monday that although he didn’t condone drug use, “I think young people who make mistakes should not suffer lifelong consequences on something that I think is perhaps not life-threatening.”

Councilwomen Theresa Kail-Smith and Darlene Harris opposed the proposal, arguing that such changes should be made at the state level. Ms. Kail-Smith said that although she was sympathetic to the legislation’s intent, police in neighboring municipalities might still file charges for possession.

“I think [the bill] gives a false sense of security” to those crossing the city line, she said. The resulting confrontations, she added, “could actually escalate to something much more serious than a fine.”

Ms. Harris worried whether the city was “overstepping our bounds.”

Penalties for drug offense are typically set by the state, whose authority often precludes local governments from passing their own ordinances. But Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said Pittsburgh’s bill doesn’t run afoul of state law, because it still leaves police the option to file criminal charges. “The state doesn’t prohibit municipalities from parallel punishments” as long as they don’t weaken state law, he said.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has responded to the measure with cautious support. In a Nov. 13 letter, he assured Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay that his office would “try to accomplish what the mayor and city council would like to see done.” And although Philadelphia’s “authority … to pass such legislation is questionable,” he wrote, the number of marijuana arrests there had dropped by nearly three-quarters since 2014.

Mr. Nightingale said that ideally such reforms would be passed in Harrisburg. But he noted the Republican-controlled Legislature had stymied more modest efforts to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Passing local laws, he said, could convince state officials that “this is something Pennsylvanians want.”

Chris Potter: cpotter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.

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