Marijuana Decriminalization in Pittsburgh
Since the beginning of 2016, marijuana has been decriminalized in Pittsburgh. Decriminalization is not the same as legalization—it means that while marijuana is still officially illegal, the penalties for possession are reduced to the level of a traffic offense. As the legislative efforts to legalize medical marijuana in Pennsylvania have stalled, Pittsburgh’s new law is a step towards a just and practical approach to the regulation of marijuana use in the State.
Pittsburgh City Council Votes to Decriminalize Pot
In December 2015, the Pittsburgh city council voted 7-2 in favor of a measure sponsored by Councilman Daniel Lavelle that decriminalizes the possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana and 8 grams of hashish. The penalty for simple possession could be as low as $25, while someone who gets caught in possession while smoking may have to pay the maximum fine of $100.
According to Mayor Bill Peduto, who did not hesitate to sign the ordinance into law, Pittsburgh’s decimalization of marijuana is “a common-sense change that will help protect the futures of young people.” Indeed, minors will no longer face criminal charges for pot possession in the city. Instead, their parents will be notified and asked to pay the fine.
An Injection of Common Sense into the Pittsburgh Criminal Justice System
According a report published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2013, African-American residents of Allegheny County are almost six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts. The rate of marijuana use, however, is similar between the two groups.
Since marijuana possession is no longer a criminal offense warranting arrest, it is likely that fewer of Pittsburgh’s African Americans will face the disproportionate effects of the war on drugs. Previously, the possession of marijuana in the city could result in a misdemeanor charge involving 30 days in jail, up to $500 in fines, and a permanent criminal history entry that could negatively affect the convict’s future employment prospects.
The decriminalization bill is not only more just, it is also more practical. Now, Pittsburgh courts, prosecutors, and law enforcement will no longer waste time and resources handling low-level drug offender cases. And the city coffers will see an estimated influx of $1,000,000 per year from the collection of additional fines.
Did Pittsburgh Overstep its Bounds?
Some believe that the city of Pittsburgh does not have the authority to unilaterally decriminalize a substance that is banned at both the state and federal levels. Councilwomen Darlene Harris and Theresa Kail-Smith, who voted against the decriminalization ordinance, were of the opinion that the city was overstepping its bounds, and that only the state government should legislate on drug policy.
But according to Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, the Pittsburgh decriminalization ordinance doesn’t conflict with state law, because it gives police officers the discretion to either issue a ticket or to make an arrest under state law. Pennsylvania does not explicitly prohibit cities and municipalities from making parallel punishments for crimes, as long as they don’t weaken state law.
Marijuana is only decriminalized within the city limits of Pittsburgh. This means that possession is still a criminal offense in the rest of Allegheny county and the state. If you get charged with marijuana possession, you should talk to an experienced Pittsburgh marijuana lawyer. The Pittsburgh drug defense lawyers with Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC are available today to give you a free and confidential consultation of your case today at (412) 281-2146.