Marijuana decriminalization won’t affect Pitt policy


Aby Sobotka-Briner | Staff Illustrator

Rather than arresting people on minor marijuana offenses, Pittsburgh police now have the option to fine offenders up to $100 for having 30 grams or less of marijuana or eight grams or less of hashish, according to a Pittsburgh City Council law Mayor Bill Peduto signed Dec. 22. Kenyon Bonner, interim vice provost and dean of students, said in a statement that the University will still hold students accountable for the Student Code of Conduct, which outlines sanctions for drug and alcohol violations, despite the new legislation.

“This bill does not legalize marijuana,” Bonner said in an email. “Students still have the same level of responsibility for their behavior under the Student Code of Conduct.”

Additionally, Residence Life marijuana policies will not change — staff will continue to notify Pitt police upon every marijuana incident in a dorm building, according to Steve Anderson, associate dean of students and director of Residence Life.

The protocol for Pitt police, according to spokesperson John Fedele and the Office of Student Affairs, has always been to refer students caught with marijuana to the University rather than pressing criminal charges. That course of action, Fedele said, will not change.

Pitt police will continue to consider each marijuana incident on a “case by case basis,” Fedele said.

According to Barbara Ruprecht, Pitt’s student conduct officer, the Pitt police determine whether to arrest a student and file criminal charges. If the Pitt police decide not to file criminal charges — or issue a citation under the new law — they will issue a judicial referral with the University that will remain on the student’s record.

If the police choose to file criminal charges, the student’s case goes through the judicial system like any other charge.

However, Stephen Zappala, the Allegheny County District Attorney said his office will not press criminal charges and will follow the new rule of issuing a fine instead.

In a letter to Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay on Nov. 13, 2015, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala indicated that his office would no longer prosecute minor marijuana cases that originate in Pittsburgh.

“With all due respect to our State legislature, I recognize that the Mayor and Council were elected to represent the specific interests of the people of Pittsburgh,” Zappala’s letter read. “In this regard … my office would work with you to try to accomplish what the Mayor and City Council would like to see done.”

Zappala letter

Pittsburgh Police spokesperson Sonya Toler said the Bureau was reviewing the legislation to “determine how it will be enacted,” but Zappala’s letter indicated his office would only pursue small amounts of marijuana charges from police outside of Pittsburgh.

Though possessing marijuana is still a criminal offense in Pennsylvania, state police and the state attorney general’s office have refrained from interfering with city laws.

As Pitt and Pittsburgh work out how to integrate the new city law, other cities like Philadelphia, which passed similar decriminalization legislation in 2014, have seen a significant decrease in the number of marijuana arrests in the city.

Cameron Kline, spokesperson for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, said the most significant change is in courtrooms.

In Philadelphia, there were an average of 55 marijuana possession cases in court per week before the decriminalization, according to Kline. That number has since dropped to 14 cases per week.

According to Chris Goldstein, from the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws in Philadelphia, the option to issue a citation frees up Philadelphia police officers.

“It takes maybe 15 minutes to write a citation, whereas it could take several hours to process an arrest,” Goldstein said. “The time savings and money savings are huge, allowing police to focus on more serious crimes.”

Like Pitt, Temple University officials said after Philadelphia decriminalized marijuana that students still had to follow the student code of conduct, regardless of city laws, according to the Temple News.

According to Kline, the people entering the court system now are dealers, instead of casual users.

“Any time we can make the courts more efficient is good for the people of Philadelphia,” Kline said. “The DA feels people shouldn’t have a stain on their record for having a small amount of marijuana.”

Pittsburgh Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who represents Perry South, the Hill District, the Northside, Uptown, Downtown and Oakland, introduced the decriminalization legislation in November “to help protect Pittsburghers from unnecessary criminal charges.”

Racial disparities in the number of arrests for marijuana possession were the impetus for Lavelle’s legislation, according to the bill.

“Criminal marijuana possession enforcement disproportionately impacts both groups,” Goldstein said. “This racial disparity is disturbing. It also does not appear in other drug arrests.”

According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, police in Pennsylvania are 5.19 times more likely to arrest black people for marijuana possession than white people. This statistic remains despite the fact that black people — who make up a minority of the population — and white people use marijuana at equal rates.

Pittsburgh ACLU attorney Sara Rose told The Pitt News in December that a state-recognized minor offense — what marijuana arrests previously led to — has a substantial impact on a person’s record.

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

In the United States, drug charges are most often based on marijuana possession. According to the 2014 FBI Uniform Crime Report, 44 percent of drug charges in the northeast were marijuana-related.

Despite the ease on the criminal justice system, some groups, like the Pennsylvania Medical Society and the American Medical Society, have called for more research on medical marijuana but abstained from supporting any decriminalization laws.

In 2010, the PA Medical Society adopted the AMA’s policy on marijuana, which “urges that marijuana’s status as a federal Schedule I controlled substance be reviewed,” but that the group’s urging “should not be viewed as an endorsement of state-based medical cannabis programs [or] the legalization of marijuana.”

In the meantime, a 2015 study by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization that works to improve public policy, found through analyzing decriminalization in Vermont that it cost police departments in the state about $20 to issue a citation, compared to $1,266 to perform an arrest.

“That means the Pittsburgh police should save almost $1 million under the first full year of decrim[inalization]. We have seen that impact in Philadelphia,” Goldstein said.

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