Is Pittsburgh’s marijuana decriminalization effort working?

As much as it can, says a local marijuana activist and attorney.

Katheirne Hitt / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

This spring, Pittsburgh decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

City council passed an ordinance that allows police officers to write citations for possessing less than 30 grams of marijuana and for smoking pot, rather than charging a person with a misdemeanor that can lead to jail time.

How successful has it been? It’s unclear.

A spokesperson for Pittsburgh’s Public Safety Department said they “do not have a way to track any citations under the changed ordinance.”

“The city and its law department and others are still working out the details regarding the marijuana ordinance,” she said.

“It’s been very hard to get any type of real sense or estimates from the police officers themselves,” said criminal defense attorney Patrick Nightingale, who serves as executive director of Pittsburgh NORML.

Before the ordinance passed, Nightingale said Pittsburgh police officers already knew that the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office was reducing many misdemeanor marijuana cases to summary citations.

The ordinance reaffirmed to officers that police command, the mayor’s office and the DA “have your back if you do not charge somebody with possession of a small amount,” he said.

Rather than issue a citation, Nightingale said he believes some officers are now taking contraband and not bringing people found with pot into the system at all. The exception is when people have allegedly committed another crime, like a DUI or robbery.

“Small amount cases are rarely coming through city court anymore,” he said.

Beyond this spring’s decriminalization ordinance, Pittsburgh’s hands are essentially tied when it comes to further decriminalizing — or even legalizing — marijuana.

Voters in four states — California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — legalized recreational pot on Election Day, while Arkansas, Florida, North Dakota and Montana voters approved medical marijuana.

Nightingale will soon attempt to make a state-level change when it comes to the penalties for marijuana through the court system.

He will argue in Allegheny County court this month that marijuana’s Schedule 1 classification is unconstitutional in Pennsylvania.

In Pennsylvania, marijuana is defined as a Schedule 1 drug because it has no medical benefits.

“In determining that a substance comes within this schedule, the secretary shall find: a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision,” the Controlled Substances, Drugs, Device, and Cosmetic Act of 1972 reads.

But Nightingale plans to argue that the state legislature declared that marijuana does have medical benefits when it legalized cannabis to treat 17 conditions.

“You don’t get to have it both ways,” he said.

If he loses, Nightingale said he’ll appeal the ruling. The case may ultimately be heard by the state Supreme Court. If he wins, he expects the local prosecutor to appeal.

Nightingale said he doesn’t think that office will say, “Oh, fuck it, marijuana’s legal now.”