PA: Erie City Council Poised To Change Rules On Marijuana

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Police, others in law enforcement still assessing how much of an effect a new ordinance might have.

Pittsburgh, State College, Philadelphia and York have made the move.

The concept is one that Mayor Joe Schember embraces.

And as Erie City Council looks poised to reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana at its regular meeting Wednesday, local law enforcement officials are weighing in on the change and whether it will create any significant issues for them.

Council on Wednesday is expected to vote on changes to an existing city ordinance that would make possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana, and drug paraphernalia, a summary offense instead of a misdemeanor under certain conditions.

That would mean that in some cases, marijuana possession would be handled like a traffic ticket, instead of as a criminal offense, with a small fine being issued.

The ordinance changes were unanimously approved by City Council on first reading Jan. 3. The changes must pass two readings of City Council before becoming law.

Mike Nolan, deputy chief of the Erie Bureau of Police’s Criminal Investigation Division, said police are reviewing a copy of the city’s ordinance, which was modeled after similar legislation approved by the State College Borough Council in August 2016.

According to Pennsylvania’s Uniform Crime Reporting System, Erie police filed 140 charges of marijuana possession in 2017. There were 110 such cases filed by city police in 2016, statistics show.

The number of those cases that involved amounts of 30 grams or less was not available.

“We have some questions to take up with council, including whether this will conflict with (state or federal law),” Nolan said. “And we will check in with other cities about how it’s played out there. Obviously, whatever council passes we will comply with.”

The ordinance reflects a nationwide trend, as municipalities move to decriminalize marijuana possession involving small amounts of the drug and drug paraphernalia. Further, many states have moved to decriminalize marijuana and/or make the use of recreational marijuana legal.

Other Pennsylvania cities are exploring ordinances similar to the one City Council plans to bring to a vote Wednesday.

City Council members in Easton, in Northampton County near Allentown, are considering their own decriminalization ordinance after reading about Erie’s decriminalization proposal, Councilman Peter Melan told the Allentown Morning Call in December.

Officials from The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws have said decriminalization typically means no arrest, jail time or criminal record for a first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use.

NORML is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit working to legalize marijuana. The organization also supports removing all criminal penalties for private possession and what it calls “responsible use” of marijuana by adults.

At council’s Jan. 3 meeting, several members of the panel stressed that the move is not legalizing marijuana possession within city limits — it is making penalties more in line with the offense, so a misdemeanor charge doesn’t prohibit someone from landing a job, receiving federal financial aid for college, or joining the military, for example.

Erie’s ordinance also proposes fines of $25 for each possession offense and $100 for smoking marijuana in public and/or possession of drug paraphernalia. Courts would have the discretion to suspend fines, however, if a person found guilty of possession performs up to nine hours of community service.

“I pushed this forward in response to concerns from the community,” Councilman Bob Merski, who lobbied hard for the ordinance, said at that meeting. “I think it’s just a common-sense ordinance that will allow the crime to fit the punishment.

“We see times changing with how people view marijuana,” Merski said. “The laws have to fit the times. So that’s what we’re doing here.”

Schember agreed. He said that reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana can let the police focus on bigger crimes because it frees up time for police to go after “the real bad guys.”

Schember also cited research such as a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, which suggests that marijuana legalization can help reduce opiate overdose deaths and/or hospitalizations.

Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri said that the change is unlikely to have a huge impact in local criminal courts.

“Usually, when those charges are filed they are de minimis, meaning that because they carry a maximum of 30 days of incarceration, they are treated as the least serious of any drug offense and in most cases are withdrawn as part of a plea agreement to the more serious charges in a case,” Daneri said.

“I don’t believe that anyone’s received jail time for a small amount of marijuana if they have pled guilty to it,” Daneri said, adding that it would be “extremely unusual” to have a criminal case that only includes a single count of possession of a small amount.

He also said it would be “extremely unusual” to have a criminal case that only includes a single count of possession of a small amount.

In a case like that, “Either the person would plead guilty at the district judge or we would amend the charge to a summary charge disorderly conduct and we would have them plead to that. Some offense that would ensure that the case would not go beyond the preliminary hearing, if that was the only thing they were charged with when they came in.”

State College Borough Police issued 34 summary citations for marijuana possession in 2017, said Lt. Greg Brauser, the department’s community relations officer.

“It’s not a big problem for us (to enforce),” Brauser said. “We get more than 32 underage drinking citations in a weekend, for example, when there’s a (Penn State) football game. So compared to the alcohol problems we have down here, it’s not even close.”

In State College, borough police can charge a student in possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana with a summary offense that carries a fine of $250, and they can charge a student caught using marijuana with a summary offense that carries a fine of $350.

On Penn State University’s campus, though, university police must still follow federal and state laws that consider marijuana use and possession a misdemeanor, because the school receives state and federal funds.

“Actually, from a police standpoint, (the State College ordinance) gives us another guideline that makes our work less cumbersome,” Brauser said.

Erie City Council’s President, Sonya Arrington, also supports the ordinance City Council is likely to approve on Wednesday.

“I know a lot of young people who are affected by this,” Arrington said.

Council meets Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Bagnoni Council Chambers at City Hall, 626 State St.