A day after Easton City Council voted down a civil penalty — instead of a crime — for possession of a small amount of marijuana, officials in Bethlehem and Allentown said Thursday they may consider similar proposals.
The district attorneys in Northampton and Lehigh counties have opposing views on the idea of giving police the option of a non-traffic citation, similar to a parking ticket, that carries a fine. Under state law, possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and/or prison.
Creating the local option is similar to cities’ push to outlaw handheld cellphone use while driving, said Allentown City Councilman Daryl Hendricks, a former city police officer. Allentown’s cellphone law was struck down in court in May 2011, seven months before the state law was signed banning texting while driving.
“We can’t make those laws when we have state laws that supersede it,” Hendricks said. “Unless the state does something, it would have no teeth with us.”
Bethlehem police would face a particular challenge, given that the city is divided between the two counties, police Chief Mark DiLuzio said.
“I don’t see a problem with it if they want to decriminalize it,” he said Thursday. “My problem is the way they’re doing it.
“A law is supposed to be universal, non-prejudicial and fair to everyone. You can’t have two laws for the same thing.”
DiLuzio echoed concerns raised Wednesday in Easton by Mayor Sal Panto Jr., arguing that offering police the alternative could lead to lawsuits over why one person is arrested and another is fined.
“You’re opening what I think is Pandora’s box by doing it,” DiLuzio said. “Is it opening you up for some type of civil action? It opens up a big can of worms. It does more than decriminalize a weed, a piece of weed.”
Panto joined Easton council members opposed to the civil penalty proposal. It failed by a 4-3 vote.
Bethlehem City Council President Adam Waldron said a proposal in the works in Bethlehem is based on a draft resolution supplied by the Lehigh Valley chapter of the NORML marijuana advocacy group. It could be months, he said, before it comes up for a vote, following legal reviews and discussions with the police chief and Mayor Bob Donchez.
“The idea would be that it would be up to the officers’ discretion, whether they would like to arrest and cite that person or whether they would like to give them the civil penalty,” Waldron said, adding later: “If the police chief and mayor are not on board, there’s not a lot of sense in us pushing something forward.”
Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli said his position has been clear since his 2016 run for Pennsylvania attorney general, when he voiced support for statewide decriminalization of possession of a small amount of marijuana to make it punishable by a non-traffic citation.
“Since that time I’ve been asked about various municipalities including Easton and Bethlehem city council taking up legislation to have an ordinance passed and I’ve stated numerous times that I have no opposition to the cities doing that,” he said Thursday. “That’s up to each individual city, that’s up to each individual council and mayor.”
For concerns about marijuana possessors being treated differently under local versus state law, Morganelli said that’s a question for the city solicitor.
“I would not support that,” Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin said Thursday. “First of all, no municipality in this area has the right or the authority to create a crime. The state’s pre-empted the field there.
“So unless the state Legislature determines that it should be a summary offense, which is what I believe some of these municipalities are doing, it’s a violation of the state law and it’s also a federal violation.”
The Pennsylvania Legislature has a proposal to address the issue at the state level. The measure would reduce most cases of possession of a small amount of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a summary offense, payable by a fine and eliminating the suspension of driving privileges the first or second time someone is cited.
House Bill 928 has been before the House Judiciary Committee since May 2017.
To Martin, there is also the question of whether marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to other substance abuse, he said.
“But we’re in the midst of the worst opioid epidemic in the history of this commonwealth and this nation and people are dying at terrific rates, terrific in a bad sense, and I don’t think we should be encouraging drug use under those circumstances,” he said.
Other Pennsylvania cities that have pushed through decriminalization include Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, York and Erie.
The discussion around reducing the penalty for personal use of marijuana comes as Pennsylvania began in February offering medical cannabis products to eligible patients, including via a dispensary on Stefko Boulevard in Bethlehem.
Jeff Riedy, executive director of Lehigh Valley NORML, told Easton council on Wednesday the medical law does not protect those who find they get the best relief from smoking marijuana, which remains illegal under the state program.
It also comes as New Jersey is moving toward legalizing adult recreational use of marijuana under new Gov. Phil Murphy. That proposal faces hurdles: If the state Senate were to vote now on whether New Jersey should legalize marijuana for recreational use, the bill would fail, according to a survey by NJ Cannabis Insider, a new publication from NJ Advance Media, the company the operates lehighvalleylive.com and nj.com.
Elsewhere, Massachusetts is working to offer the first retail sales of recreational marijuana east of the Mississippi River as early as July 1, according to masslive.com, another sister site of lehighvalleylive.com.