Getting busted for a few buds of Northern Lights in Philadelphia will likely cost you a $25 fine. But it could land you in jail in most towns and cities in Pennsylvania that haven’t decriminalize marijuana.
State lawmakers are talking about decriminalizing weed for personal use, but legislation designed to accomplish that stalled this year. And advocates of decriminalization say changing the state’s marijuana law will be an uphill battle next year.
Two marijuana decriminalization bills gained some traction this year. Both proposed pieces of legislation are awaiting consideration by the state House Judiciary Committee. Both would make possession of a small amount of marijuana a summary offense -- the most minor type of criminal offense in Pennsylvania – which would result in a fine for conviction.
Under current state law, possession is a misdemeanor and can result in a maximum punishment of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Rep. Barry Jozwiak (R-Berks), sponsor one of the bills, argues that reducing the penalty for possession will save the taxpayers money. He notes that there were 542 cases of possession of less than 30 grams of weed last year in Berks County, where he once served as sheriff.
“These cases cost thousands of dollars to prosecute for what usually results in a $200 fine,” he said in a memo on his bill. “I’m sure this is the same in other counties.”
Chris Goldstein, columnist and Board Member for Philly NORML, makes the same argument. He estimates that Philadelphia has saved approximately $9 million since marijuana was decriminalized in the city almost two years ago.
“It costs about $1,200 every time you arrest someone for marijuana use,” he said. “Philadelphia used to be number one for marijuana arrests, with 4,300 arrests per year. It clogs up the system horribly.”
Decriminalization would also be beneficial to patients seeking relief from medical marijuana, advocates say. Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Act went into effect last May, but full implementation of the law is expected to take as long as two years. Activists argue that the law has significant limitations.
“It’s not inclusive in who it covers,” said Luke Schultz of the organization Campaign for Compassion. “If we had decriminalization across the state, those who are not covered would feel a little bit more at ease trying or using it while knowing that the worse they would get would be a small fine. Right now, you’re risking jail time.”
Marijuana is currently decriminalized in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and State College. Individual municipalities can decriminalize the drug and decide on new penalties for possession. In Philadelphia, you can receive a $25 fine for possessing 30 grams or less of marijuana. Public use can land you a fine of $100.
“If you were to take the procedure we have in Philly statewide, we would see the same 80 percent reduction in arrests,” said Goldstein. “We [as a state] would save $40 million.”
Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Pittsburgh), who introduced the other decriminalization bill, argues that a conviction under current state law can punish offenders beyond the jail cell.
“A misdemeanor conviction can have lifelong implications including loss of employment, loss of public housing and loss of educational loan eligibility,” he wrote in a memo accompanying his bill.
Gainey adds that despite the changing attitudes about pot possession, the state continues to charge 18,000 people each year with possessing small amount. And minorities are disproportionately affected. Five times as many minorities as whites are busted for possession despite similar usage rates, he said.
One of the first steps in achieving decriminalization will be moving proposed bills through committee.
“In order to get anything passed we have to have enough supporters to get it brought to the floor,” said Erica McBride of the Keystone Cannabis Coalition. “Decriminalization is gaining more bipartisan support. We need more Republican support for these bills.”
Becky Dansky of the Marijuana Policy Project notes that 21 states have decriminalized marijuana possession and reduced the penalty to fine.
“While there may be support in PA, there’s still a huge resistance in the General Assembly,” she said.