PA: Should Bethlehem Decriminalize Marijuana

Photo Credit: Carline Jean

Bethlehem City Councilwoman Olga Negron wants to band with other cities in something of a joint effort to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

While smoking marijuana is still a crime in Pennsylvania, Negron proposed those caught with 30 grams or less of the drug in the city face civil penalties instead. The proposal is modeled after similar ordinances that passed in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Negron said she hopes it will help build momentum that leads to to decriminalizing marijuana at the statewide level.

“I’m especially concerned with our youth as they are charged with possession of marijuana and the damage in their records that keeps them from moving forward — getting a college graduation, grants or a better job,” Negron said. “In many cases, it turns into a dead end for their future.”

Marijuana is classified by the federal government as a Schedule 1 substance, the same classification as heroin. The Drug Enforcement Administration defines such drugs as having a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.

Pennsylvania legalized the use of marijuana in the treatment of certain medical conditions but does not allow it for recreational use. Possession of a small amount in Pennsylvania is a misdemeanor with a penalty of up to 30 days in prison and a $500 fine.

Negron’s proposal would not legalize marijuana in the city but make the penalty more akin to a traffic ticket. Under the proposal, someone caught with marijuana for personal use could walk away after paying as little as a $25 fine for the first offense.

Councilman Michael Colon, chairman of the public safety committee, said he will schedule a meeting to review the proposal. At first blush, Colon said, the proposal has merit.

Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez said he would support the decriminalization statewide, but it would be tricky enforcing a local ordinance in Bethlehem, which is split between two counties and district attorneys with opposing views.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, who favors decriminalization of marijuana statewide, said he would not take a position on what ordinances cities enact and allow cities to enforce it how they see fit.

Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin indicated Monday in a memo to Donchez that such an ordinance would be “unconstitutional.” Martin indicated he would instruct police officers in the city’s Lehigh County sections to continue enforcing the state law, treating nonmedicinal marijuana usage as criminal.

Donchez said he would support something like what Easton has done. After narrowly rejecting a proposal similar to Negron’s two months ago, Easton City Council passed a resolution urging the state to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a summary offense statewide.