Lower penalties for marijuana possession bill advances to Harrisburg committee

HARRISBURG - The city council advanced a bill Thursday that would soften the penalties for marijuana possession in the city.

The bill was referred to the council’s public safety committee, which will hold a public hearing on the matter in the next few weeks.

“Now note that I'm not supporting this legislation to promote the use of an illegal substance, but supporting so that all people are treated fairly,” Harrisburg city council President Wanda Williams said.

There are still lots of questions from the community about the proposal.

“Will that affect the driver's license? Because quite frankly, I think that's more important than the record,” resident Lenore Smith said. “I think the record is important, but if a person loses their driver's license for six months, they can't get to work.”

The plan would re-classify the first and second time someone is caught with marijuana as a summary offense, drawing a $100 fine on the first strike and a $200 fine on the second. The third time would be bumped up to a misdemeanor.

Some supporters say the punishment should be even lighter.

“Someday we'll have full legalization of cannabis in Pennsylvania, and prohibitionists will look pathetically foolish,” Les Stark of the Keystone Cannabis Coalition said. “We applaud your effort, but ask you to reach down a bit deeper and take a more even approach than the misguided third strike provision and the higher fines.”

The move is also seen as a potential revenue generator for the city. The fines from summary offenses go directly to the city of Harrisburg. As things stand now, with pot possession classified as a misdemeanor, the fines cover administrative court costs instead.

If the bill had been in place last year, it would have raised at least $64,000 for the city’s public safety reserve fund, a point that opponents of the bill brought up.

“Why are we interested in making sure that crime will escalate?” a resident who identified himself as Boyd said. “We know that this is nothing but a ploy to have more revenue.”