Marijuana decriminalization vote pending: City Council will decide later this month

Pittsburgh City Council will consider decriminalizing marijuana in Pittsburgh later this month, possibly giving residents the gift of lesser charges for future drug violations.

On Dec. 21, City Council will vote on a proposed city ordinance that would direct police to confiscate drugs and issue a $100 fine to individuals caught with fewer than 30 grams of marijuana rather than issue a misdemeanor that would linger on the person’s record.

Before the official vote, City Council will hold a public hearing on Dec. 15, and a preliminary vote the following day to gauge interest on the bill.

City councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, who represents Perry South, the Hill District, the Northside, Uptown, Downtown and Oakland,  introduced the legislation Nov. 17, “to help protect Pittsburghers from unnecessary criminal charges.”

In a release, Lavelle said the Philadelphia City Council’s decision to pass a similar decriminalization bill last October inspired the legislation.

Patrick Nightingale, a criminal defense attorney and executive director of Pittsburgh’s chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, said decriminalizing marijuana cuts defendants some financial slack, especially those who opt for a plea bargain, as they will not have to go through the same legal process that follows an arrest.

“They still have to be fingerprinted, appear for court  — most likely are hiring a lawyer  — and they pay up to a $300 fine, plus [approximately] $130 in court costs, and then they are well advised to have their record expunged, which costs $100 in filing fees,” Nightingale said.

Racial disparities in the number of arrests for marijuana possession also prompted Lavelle’s call for change.

According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, police are 3.73 times more likely to arrest black people for marijuana possession than white people, despite the fact that marijuana is used about equally among blacks and whites in the United States.

In Pennsylvania, the report showed police were 5.19 times more likely to arrest black people for marijuana possession than white people.

Sara Rose, staff attorney for ACLU of Pittsburgh, said by virtue of being charged for a criminal offense, a state-recognized minor offense can have a substantial impact.

“Most of the people who are charged for marijuana end up being offered a plea to lead to a summary offense,” Rose said. “But you’re still pleading guilty to a drug possession offense which can then impact all kinds of benefits that people are eligible for.”

Robert Nyatt, the chair for the Ohio chapter of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, a national volunteer organization, said he is wary of the decriminalization of marijuana because the current possibility of punishment discourages people from using the drug.

“Two things come into play when it comes to decriminalization — keeping it illegal provides a deterrent and legalizing it removes the idea that there is harm and that it is a bad thing to do,” Nyatt said.

Nyatt’s main concern is that the lack of restrictions will amplify the medical risks of marijuana.

“The more people that use it, the more people become addicted,” Nyatt said.

Ohio also has a decriminalization law, a good strategy according to Nyatt because the law  still puts restrictions on those people who possess marijuana but focuses on punishing those in possession of higher amounts — which Nyatt assumes means they are selling the drug — more harshly.

After years of witnessing the current legislation’s damages, Aggie Brose, deputy director of Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, said the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation has been fighting for action against the criminalization of marijuana at the local and state-level for many years.

“I got young men in my neighborhood now that are probably in their thirties who made a bad decision when they were young,” Aggie said. “Smoked a joint, got caught, got a record, and they are unemployed, and some of them are homeless.”

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