Lancaster City Council plans to consider an ordinance this month that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The proposal has the support of city police leadership and the local NAACP. County District Attorney Craig Stedman confirmed that his department and the city have discussed the measure, but declined to comment on it for the time being.
Council President James Reichenbach characterized the proposed ordinance as “small and targeted” and emphasized: “This is not legalization.”
It would empower police in Lancaster to write up first or second infractions involving the possession or use of small amounts of marijuana or the possession of related paraphernalia as a summary offense rather than a misdemeanor.
City police only file charges involving small amounts of marijuana about 30 to 40 times a year, out of about 6,000 annual arrests, Chief Jarrad Berkihiser said.
Moreover, in about half of those cases, other charges are filed, too. So the ordinance would not lead to a major reduction in arrest volume.
Still, resources would be freed up that “could be used for more important issues,” Mayor Danene Sorace said.
More importantly, officials said, the change could keep individuals out of the criminal justice system.
Even a minor drug conviction can lead to the denial of education loans, housing, jobs and more, dramatically reducing a person’s opportunities in life, Reichenbach said.
The repercussions are far out of proportion to the offense, he said. Someone simply caught with a joint deserves “not to have that checkmark on them for the rest of their life.”
Small amounts are defined in state law as up to 30 grams of marijuana or 8 grams of hashish. The maximum punishment is 30 days in prison and a $500 fine, but in practice, it’s usually a small fine and probation.
Given the small stakes, officers generally see the effort involved in filing a minor marijuana charge as “inefficient and time-consuming,” Berkihiser said.
Paperwork for a summary offense, in contrast, is minimal. Violators would receive a citation, similar to a traffic ticket. The penalty would be a $75 fine.
Police would still retain the discretion to file a misdemeanor rather than a summary charge, Berkihiser said. They will do so, he said, when an arrest involves additional, more serious charges — for example, if a small amount of marijuana is found on someone who is driving under the influence of the drug.
‘A good step’
The war on drugs in all its forms has greatly harmed blacks and Latinos, said Blanding Watson, president of the Lancaster NAACP.
He said the chapter is pleased by the “first step” represented by the ordinance. If and when it’s enacted, the NAACP plans to monitor its use to make sure police apply it fairly.
City Housing Authority Executive Director Barbara Wilson said she pushed unsuccessfully for such a measure as a city councilwoman in 2014, when council passed a resolution endorsing the state’s then-pending legalization of medical marijuana.
“This is good news,” she said. “It’s a good step in the right direction.”
Stedman noted a countywide drug and alcohol diversion program created by his office has been in operation since 2011. It allows low-level offenders who complete its requirements to have the charges against them withdrawn.
Other Pennsylvania cities have reduced or eliminated penalties for marijuana possession. The proposed ordinance is very similar to Harrisburg’s, Lancaster city Chief of Staff Matt Johnson said.
There were 26 fewer misdemeanor marijuana arrests in Harrisburg in the six months after its ordinance took effect, a drop of nearly 30 percent, according to an analysis of court records by the Carlisle Sentinel.
However, the drop was more than offset by 41 summary citations, the newspaper reported, suggesting police may be more willing to write up a minor infraction when it doesn’t result in a criminal record.
That’s OK, Johnson said. It’s the misdemeanor charge that has long-term consequences, and the decrease in that number is a good sign that Harrisburg’s ordinance is having an effect.
Council plans to discuss the ordinance at its committee meeting Tuesday and introduce it at its regular meeting Sept. 11.
Depending on the feedback from council members and the general public, a vote could take place Sept. 25, or be delayed to allow more debate, Reichenbach said.