Will Pennsylvania Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization?

Kyle Jaeger, Marijuana Moment

A bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana could advance in the Pennsylvania legislature this week.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up the bill, which was filed by Republican state Rep. Barry Jozwiak, a former state trooper and Berks County sheriff. The legislation seeks to make possession of under 30 grams of cannabis a summary offense punishable by up to a $300 fine and no jail time for first- and second-time offenders.

Though simple possession is already effectively decriminalized in several Pennsylvania jurisdictions, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, state law considers the offense a third-degree misdemeanor that carries penalties of up to a $500 fine, up to 30 days of jail time and a driver’s license suspension.

“Downgrading this offense from a misdemeanor to a summary offense would have a positive effect on local law enforcement efforts, allowing police and prosecutors to focus their time and resources on more serious offenses,” Jozwiak wrote in a co-sponsorship memorandum in February 2017.

“As a former law enforcement officer, I strongly believe in cracking down on drug dealers and those who prey on the young or weak with drugs. But those defendants are addressed elsewhere in the Controlled Substances Act. For individuals who merely possess small amounts of marijuana, I believe this adjusted grading makes sense.”

A prior version of the bill was introduced in 2015, but it did not receive a committee vote. And while marijuana reform advocates are supportive of efforts to eliminate criminal punishments for cannabis offenses, some view Jozwiak’s bill as a red herring.

“Reducing the misdemeanor level offense to a non-traffic summary citation will keep thousands out of the criminal justice system and will help to alleviate the disparity in cannabis enforcement,” Patrick Nightingale, executive director of Pittsburgh NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “We cannot, however, support legislation that will nonetheless continue to expose Pennsylvanians to criminal prosecution.”

“HB 928 would escalate to a misdemeanor if the individual has two prior summary convictions for cannabis possession. An amendment would also criminalize mere possession in a motor vehicle. We believe this will continue to incentivize law enforcement to harass cannabis consumers. We also believe this is yet another attempt to control cannabis consumption through with threats of criminal prosecution which has proven to be an abysmal failure.”

Under Jozwiak’s bill, a third marijuana possession offense would be considered a third-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and no jail time.

The individual’s third possession offense would lead to a driver’s license suspension, but that suspension would expire after six months.

Nightingale and other advocates have their sights set on more far-reaching proposed marijuana reforms.

A majority of Pennsylvania voters (59 percent) back full marijuana legalization. But political leadership on the issue has been lacking in the Keystone State, leaving a void for reform that either party could theoretically occupy.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) is a supporter of the state’s medical cannabis program, which he signed into law, but said as recently as Monday that he’s not ready to back a bill to legalize marijuana for adult-use and wants to continue to observe other legal states before enacting such a program in Pennsylvania.

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