A narrow majority of Allentown City Council heeded a call from marijuana advocates Tuesday, advancing a bill that would decriminalize small amounts of the drug in spite of a threat from Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin not to enforce the ordinance.
The 4-3 vote was the first taken on the measure, which would make possession of a small amount of marijuana — 30 grams or less — a summary offense rather than a misdemeanor. But it’s also not the final vote.
Council’s decision Tuesday instead sent the marijuana proposal to a full meeting of Allentown City Council, slated for next week, where a final vote will be taken.
All three of the Lehigh Valley’s cities are considering or have recently considered marijuana decriminalization measures. Easton City Council voted down a similar bill in March. Bethlehem City Council is slated to discuss a decriminalization ordinance later this month.
Decriminalization would not legalize marijuana use, but instead reduce the penalty. Marijuana is classified by federal law as a Schedule 1 substance, the same classification as heroin. Possession of a small amount carries a penalty of up to 30 days in prison and a $500 fine.
Under the proposed bill, a first time violation for possession would carry a $25 fine.
Tuesday’s vote served as a barometer for where Allentown’s seven-member legislative body stands on the issue. Council members Courtney Robinson, Candida Affa, Julio Guridy and Cynthia Mota, all co-sponsors of the bill, voted to move the legislation out of committee and are likely to support the proposal next week.
Three former police officers on the board, Councilmen Roger MacLean, Daryl Hendricks and Ed Zucal, all voted against the measure. Several said they support the concept of decriminalization, but the state, not Allentown, is the appropriate venue for such a decision, they argued.
Several also cited opposition to the ordinance by Martin. At Zucal’s request, council read aloud a letter Martin delivered to council Tuesday stating that the city’s proposed ordinance is “unconstitutional and unenforceable” because it conflicts with state law. State law supersedes local ordinances.
“Should the council adopt such an ordinance, I will, consistent with my oath of office and as chief law enforcement officer of Lehigh County, direct the Allentown Police Department to follow the act,” Martin said, referring to existing state law.
Martin included six attachments with the letter published by Smart Approaches to Marijuana that detailed judicial costs as a result of marijuana prosecutions. Other documents warned of the health risks of marijuana.
But the crowd that filled Allentown City Council’s chambers on Tuesday spoke only in support of decriminalization, which they argued would save time and money for local police, give needed relief to people suffering from numerous ailments and send a message to the state that higher level legislation should be passed.
Gillian Heintzelman, whose father was an Allentown Police officer, spoke to council about the “ball and chain” that her misdemeanor marijuana conviction has been throughout her life. Heintzelman said she was caught with $5 worth of marijuana when she was young.
“We all know what house arrest is,” she said. “This is life arrest for me.”
Affa, the bill’s primary sponsor and a former bar owner, said alcohol, not marijuana, is the gateway to bigger addictions. It’s “ridiculous” for someone caught with possessing a small amount of the drug to have a long-term criminal record, she said.
“I personally don’t want to see another person have the stigma of an arrest record that will follow them through their life,” Affa said.
Hendricks, citing his experience on the police force, particularly his 15 years in the vice unit, disagreed with Affa and argued that marijuana is indeed a gateway drug.
However, it’s the contradiction with state law that led him to vote no, he said.
“I believe this is the wrong bill at the wrong time for the wrong reasons,” Hendricks said.
Robinson said he disagreed with Martin’s interpretation of the law.
“This affects our citizens,” he said. “We absolutely have the prerogative to do this.”
Mayor Ray O’Connell, who will have to sign off on the bill or veto it, has not yet weighed in. He did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.
Martin’s opposition to the law stands as a major impediment if council and O’Connell were to pass the measure. Martin has squared off against Allentown City Council before, rendering legislation that the board passed essentially toothless.
In 2008, Martin ordered Allentown Police not to enforce an ordinance that required owners of lost or stolen guns to report their disappearance within 48 hours. The ordinance conflicted with higher law, Martin said at the time. It was never enforced, and Allentown City Council eventually repealed it in 2015.
Council members were in full agreement on a companion resolution, also considered Tuesday, that would encourage state officials to decriminalize marijuana. The bill was passed out of committee by a unanimous vote and will be put to a vote of full council next week.