A bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana within the City of Pittsburgh is set to be introduced Tuesday in City Council. The legislation, based on a law enacted in Philadelphia last October, would amend the Pittsburgh City Code to make possession of a small amount of marijuana (under 30 grams), or smoking a small amount of marijuana in a public space, a civil violation subject to a fine of $100.
The bill is being introduced by Councilman Daniel Lavelle, of District 6, which encompasses Downtown, Uptown, the Northside, Oakland, The Hill District and Perry Hilltop.
“This bill helps to decrease the many lives destroyed by the unnecessarily harsh consequences that come with the most minor marijuana offenses,” said Councilman Lavelle in a press release. “The bill will help break the damning lifelong consequences of unemployment, lack of education and being caught in a revolving criminal justice system, all due to a minor marijuana offense.”
Under current city law, possession of a small amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor. But according to Patrick Nightingale, Executive Director of Pittsburgh NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), that charge is almost always downgraded to a summary charge of Disorderly Conduct.
“Almost every person who is charged with a misdemeanor possession of a small amount of marijuana and/or misdemeanor of marijuana paraphernalia only is having their case reduced from a misdemeanor to a summary offense at city court,” says Nightingale.
Even so, an individual who accepts such a plea bargain still faces a number of legal obstacles, says Nightingale. “Even after the charge is reduced, they face up to a $300 fine, plus approximately $125 court costs, and they have to be proactive to have the underlying controlled substances misdemeanor expunged from their record.”
The new legislation goes a step beyond the informal policy of downgrading charges to a summary offense by treating small amounts of possession as a civil offense rather than a criminal offense. Under the new local ordinance, a police officer may issue a Notice of Violation at the moment of the offense or may mail the ticket at a later date, similar to what happens to when an individual is issued a parking ticket.
Otherwise, Nightingale explains, even a summary offense will show up as a controlled substances violation in criminal background checks. The bill itself makes specific reference to how being charged with a controlled substances violation can result in “the loss of employment and housing opportunities, especially public housing opportunities.”
One of the champions of the ordinance has been Aggie Brose, Deputy Director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. Ms. Brose says the organization has been interested in pursuing the issue for a number of years, and they were particularly heartened when Philadelphia passed their decriminalization ordinance.
The organization then hosted a number of community meetings on the issue as well as meetings with various Council Members and the District Attorney’s office.
“Hopefully we’re doing this for all the right reasons,” says Brose. “The numbers are pretty staggering. The people who get arrested for a small amount of marijuana are mostly young African-American males. And we represent a community of African-Americans, and we want to bring whatever resources we can to them to have a good future, to be able to be employed and have a good home and a good job.”
“We figured it’s time that the buck stops here,” says Brose. “It was time to make a change.”
In a letter written by District Attorney Stephen Zappala to Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay, Zappala speaks to the Chief’s desire to direct the department’s limited assets to addressing violent crime.
“In this regard,” continues Zappala, “if the Mayor and City Council, after discussion with the residents of our city through public hearings would adopt the type of legislation used in Philadelphia, my office would work with you to try to accomplish what the Mayor and City Council would like to see done.”
“One of the things we learned from Philadelphia is that this requires everybody working together,” says Nightingale. “The DA’s office, police, city council, and the mayor’s office.”
Mayor Bill Peduto’s spokesman Tim McNulty said Tuesday morning that “the administration has not yet received the legislation, but will be happy to review it along with police staff.”
How would such a local ordinance be allowable in Pittsburgh when cannabis is illegal in Pennsylvania? Nightingale says the law is consistent with the goals of Pennsylvania law and therefore is not preempted by Pennsylvania law. “The goal of Pennsylvania law is to prohibit people from possessing cannabis,” he says. “The goal of a city ordinance would be consistent with that, in imposing a civil fine and forfeiture of the controlled substance.”
Despite the new procedure, the bill maintains the police’s ability to “undertake custodial arrests where there is probable cause to believe that a criminal offense other than simple possession of a small amount of marijuana has been or is being committed.”
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, since decriminalization took effect in Philadelphia, “police have cited 73 percent fewer people than they arrested for possessing weed during the same time period in the year prior to decriminalization.”