PITTSBURGH, PA — On Tuesday, Pittsburgh Councilman and Public Safety Chair Daniel Lavelle is expected to introduce an ordinance that will allow police in the city the option to cite individuals found in possession of a small amount of marijuana, instead of arresting them and charging them with a criminal offense.
Local advocates at Pittsburgh NORML, who have been working with Councilman Lavelle to craft the proposal, say the ordinance would create a civil fine of $25 for possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana or 8 grams of hashish. The fine would increase to $100 if an individual is openly possessing marijuana, including smoking in public.
The proposal is modeled after a measure was successfully enacted last year in Philadelphia, where advocates from Philly NORML worked with then-councilman Jim Kenney — now the mayor-elect — to craft and pass the ordinance.
Instead of placing an offender under arrest, police would confiscate the offender’s marijuana and issue a civil violation, similar to a parking ticket, provided the offender is not engaged in any other criminal conduct.
Under Pennsylvania state law, possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.
According to Pittsburgh NORML, about 1,000 people are charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession in Pittsburgh each year. Almost all have the criminal charge reduced to a non-traffic summary citation at the first stage of criminal proceedings, says the organization. Pittsburgh NORML’s executive director is a criminal defense attorney in the city.
Despite similar usage rates between races, blacks are much more likely to be arrested for minor marijuana possession offenses — at a rate of five to one compared to whites.
Last year, Philadelphia became the largest city in the United States to pass a local ordinance decriminalizing marijuana possession, which has resulted in an 80% reduction in custodial arrests for small amounts of marijuana.
With support from at least six of nine Pittsburgh city council members, the ordinance is expected to pass.
“We are very excited that Pittsburgh will follow in the footsteps of Philadelphia and others across the country and embrace cannabis reform,” says Patrick Nightingale, Executive Director of Pittsburgh NORML. “Through the leadership of Public Safety Chair Daniel Lavelle and the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation Pittsburgh will no longer prioritize cannabis prosecution. Recreational and medicinal consumers in our great City can at least know that their police are not interested in arresting them and potentially ruining their lives over the possession of a simple, non-toxic plant.”
Pittsburgh is the second largest city in the state of Pennsylvania, behind only to Philadelphia. Combined, the two cities represent over ten percent of the state’s population. Advocates hope state lawmakers in Harrisburg will take action to pass a similar measure statewide, but with conservative Republicans controlling both the House and Senate, such legislation is doubtful.
Nationally, Pittsburgh joins a growing trend of local cities enacting similar laws to reduce simple marijuana possession penalties, including Chicago, Detroit and Washington, DC.
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