City of Lancaster considers reducing penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana

LANCASTER, Pa. --- City council wants to talk about easing the penalty for people caught possessing a small amount of marijuana.

Currently in Pennsylvania, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana carries a max penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

A first draft by the City of Lancaster would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana or paraphernalia a summary offense, amounting to a citation for $75.

A person would face state charges if they receive more than two citations.

James Reichenbach, city council president, said their goal is to try and keep people out of the criminal justice system."

"“When you have a drug offense on your record, it’s more difficult to get a good job, it’s more difficult to get financial aid on the federal level, it’s more difficult to get housing. All those things come into play so what we want to avoid is somebody getting arrested for something when they’re in their early 20s, or late teens, or any point in their life and then wanting to move forward with their life but because of that one decision, all of these things are more difficult so that’s really the focus here," said Reichenbach.

Reichenbach said city councilors can introduce amendments and release it to the public at their next meeting on Tuesday, September 11.

The soonest a vote could happen on the proposal would be Tuesday, September 25.

He says some suggestions that have already been made since they introduced the first draft Tuesday, September 4, include lowering the fine amount from $75 and raising the amount of citations before facing state charges to three instead of two.

Jonathon Weir, a Lancaster resident and open marijuana advocate, said he spent more than eight months in the Lancaster County Prison on charges related to selling drugs to buy marijuana.

He said he couldn't get a job because of his marijuana usage.

He believes the first draft that alleviates some of the penalties is a "step in the right direction."

"It at least gives people the opportunity to maybe not carry it with them so much, be more responsible with it," said Weir.

Michael Geer, President of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, said he believes this move is a march towards legalizing marijuana in the commonwealth.

That is something he considers "problematic."

He said he worries the lessened penalties will invite more young people to use marijuana, citing concerns with brain development and productivity.

He also thinks it creates more potential for DUI (Driving Under the Influence) related incidents in Pennsylvania involving Marijuana.

"There's negative effects that we think that this step in Lancaster is just really part of a broader push that's going to harm young people, harm society, and not be better for our families and for our community," said Geer.

Chief Jarrad Berkihiser with the Lancaster City Police says the following in regards to the proposal:

“I don’t necessarily see this as decriminalization per se. There is still a penalty associated with possession of a small amount of marijuana or paraphernalia for a first time offender. We only prosecute about 30 or 40 cases of possession of small amount per year and the charge is often associated with another criminal offense. Officers routinely seize a small amount of marijuana to be placed into evidence for destruction or officers destroy the marijuana on the street in front of the subject. The time and paperwork involved in charging possession of a small amount is often seen as inefficient and time consuming for the penalty which is normally a minimal fine and 30 to 90 days probation.

Making this a city ordinance allows an officer to write a non-traffic citation for the offense instead of a criminal complaint minimizing an officer’s time off the street while allowing a first time offender an opportunity to stay out of the criminal justice system for this mistake. I would actually like to see the state legislature change the law and criminal procedure to allow law enforcement to use a non-traffic citation for ungraded misdemeanor drug offenses to lessen the time an officer is off the street. Make it a misdemeanor citation if the defendant is not on probation, the defendant is ordered to court for disposition and fingerprinting for the offense.

Under the city ordinance the officer still has the discretion to bring the criminal charge and the criminal charge will be brought if there are other more serious charges associated with an arrest. An example would be a person is under arrest for DUI and found in possession of marijuana. The possession charge might be associated with why the defendant was DUI so the criminal charge is more appropriate.

This simply provides us with another diversion option that is inexpensive. DA Stedman created an MDJ level diversion program for first time offenders for possession of a small amount of marijuana. I know there are some costs associated with the program that may inhibit some offenders to take advantage of it. I am not certain that the DA’s diversion program is widely known and I don’t know if they have any stats to determine how often it is used. This ordinance simply provides us with another useable tool at the local level. Law enforcement across the Commonwealth are often tasked with unfunded mandates set by the state legislature through the passages of different statutes in the crimes code or vehicle code. This is a local ordinance that gives the patrol officer the discretion to issue a citation involving a fine and/or community service that does not become part of a person’s criminal history. “

The Lancaster County District Attorney's Office says it will hold on on commenting on the proposal until any such ordinance would be passed.

Reichenbach says any Lancaster resident interested in joining the conversation can contact him or other councilors via email, which can be found on the city website.