Marijuana-policy reform is speeding along in Pennsylvania despite a late start.
The crucial swing state, hit hard by the opiate crisis, legalized medical cannabis just two years ago. But state-funded universities are jumping feet-first into cannabis research, showing initiative not seen even on the West Coast’s legalization playground, and reform-minded cities — impatient and unwilling to wait for a statewide legalization effort — are pushing forward with decriminalization efforts.
On Wednesday, the City Council of Allentown — the state’s third-largest and fastest-growing city, not far from Philadelphia — voted 4 to 3 to end criminal penalties for possession of personal amounts of marijuana.
Current Pennsylvania law calls for even a minute amount of cannabis to be charged as a misdemeanor, with punishments of up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. If Allentown Mayor Ray O’Connell signs his city’s bill into law, cannabis possession would become an infraction punishable by a $25 fine, similar to a ticket for jaywalking.
O’Connell recently told the Morning Call and other local media outlets that he’s currently unsure if he’ll sign the measure into law, which is another way of saying that he’s not sure who he wants to piss off — law enforcement, or the public.
This is a balancing act seen all over the country wherever even modest marijuana reform efforts are underway.
All three “no” votes are from members of the council who are former police officers.
Prior to the vote, the local district attorney tried to poison the waters by issuing a memo to councilmembers that a local decriminalization effort would violate state law and is thus illegal.
Jim Martin, the Lehigh County chief prosecutor, issued a memo on May 8 arguing that Allentown’s law would be “unconstitutional and unenforceable.” Similar arguments helped foil a similar effort in Easton, Pennsylvania, where legislators subsequently narrowly defeated a decriminalization effort.
In Allentown’s case, the vote might have been salvaged thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union, which issued a memo to lawmakers that cited case law—and presented examples of other Pennsylvania cities — to show Martin’s argument was wrong. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, York, State College (home of Pennsylvania State University) and Erie have all passed local decriminalization laws, LehighValleyLive.com noted.
Allentown’s plan would apply only to people caught with 30 grams or less of cannabis flower or 8 grams or less of hashish, as well as “drug paraphernalia” used to consume cannabis, like papers, pipes, or grinders. Oftentimes, when low-level marijuana “crimes” are prosecuted, “offenders” are charged twice — one misdemeanor for the cannabis, and another (or two) for the implements.
O’Connell now has ten days from Wednesday to decide if the measure will become law, but even if O’Connell signs Allentown’s decriminalization effort into law, it’s unclear what police will do.
The local police chief declined to comment until the law went into effect. As the Morning Call noted, it’s possible Allentown police could follow Martin’s lead and choose not to observe the law, arresting cannabis users as before and turning them over to Martin’s office for misdemeanor charges. Not the most democratic move by law-enforcement, choosing which laws to enforce and outright ignoring the less punitive ones, but it would not be the first time.
The episode is yet another demonstration of the vast gulf between the public and the people — the police — sworn to serve and protect them.
But it also shows how much local elections matter—and how cannabis could shape them.
In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, close to Allentown, city councilmembers are considering a similar measure — and they have support from the local DA. Don’t be shocked if cannabis becomes the key issue in upcoming elections, and the obvious dividing line between the reform-minded and punitive-focused law-and-order types.
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