Council approves lighter penalties for marijuana use, possession
April 5, 2016 5:41 PM
Ian C. Bates/The New York Times
By Lexi Belculfine / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Possessing or smoking a small amount of marijuana in the city of Pittsburgh will be punishable by a summary offense, rather than a misdemeanor as state law mandates, Pittsburgh City Council decreed today.
Council voted 8-1, with the lone nay vote from Councilwoman Darlene Harris who consistently argued that decriminalization must happen on the state or federal level.
Mayor Bill Peduto is expected to sign the amended ordinance within 10 days, making it law.
Under the rule, Pittsburgh police could issue a summary citation punishable by a fine of $100 for smoking or $25 for possession of a small amount of marijuana. That would appear on a criminal record as violating “certain defined conduct” rather than including words such as marijuana or controlled substance, making it harder to search for in a person’s criminal record.
Summaries can be expunged in five years if the defendant is convicted and do not require the defendant to be fingerprinted or to appear at a preliminary hearing.
“This is a small step — but an important step — in helping young men who may have a small amount of marijuana on them, not be entered into the criminal justice system,” Councilman Ricky Burgess said before the vote.
City Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who sponsored the legislation, said police officers will still have the option to levy a misdemeanor charge if they suspect more serious crimes are also occurring. He said he intends to draft a “will of council,” asking the county and state to consider decriminalization efforts.
City officials did not say Tuesday what training police officers would receive or when they could being enforcing the new ordinance, though Mr. Lavelle said he would like to see it in place by the end of April.
Council approved an earlier version, 7-2, in December, with Mrs. Harris and Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith objecting then, too. Mrs. Kail-Smith said today she was conflicted about the ordinance but added that none of her constituents asked her to vote against it.
The ordinance originally allowed police to issue a “civil fine” unsearchable in criminal records — rather than a misdemeanor for possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana or 8 grams of hashish, punishable in Pennsylvania by 30 days in jail or a $500 fine.
But Pittsburgh, unlike Philadelphia, cannot process such civil fines.
Proponents say Pittsburgh’s bill formalizes local prosecutors’ practice of reducing misdemeanor marijuana possession to a summary citation and eliminates strain on the local criminal justice system that processing such cases imposes, as well as wiping out collateral damage wrought on employment, housing and life opportunities by the relatively minor criminal conviction.
Lexi Belculfine: email@example.com or 412-263-1878. Twitter: @LexiBelc.
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