These advocates want Pennsylvania to decriminalize marijuana — just like Pittsburgh did

They will rally Wednesday in Harrisburg. And you can join them.

Katheirne Hitt / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

Update, 4:30 p.m.

There are just a handful of municipalities in Pennsylvania where possessing a small amount of marijuana is not a crime.

Pittsburgh is one of those cities (although it’s unclear how well it’s working here), along with Philadelphia, Harrisburg and State College. But statewide, local police are still arresting thousands of people for pot every year.

“That really is an imperfect solution,” Patrick Nightingale, an attorney and the executive director of Pittsburgh NORML, told The Incline. “Because if you’re not in Philadelphia, or you’re not in Pittsburgh, you still face prosecution for a misdemeanor level offense — possessing a small amount of marijuana.”

Advocates who want to see marijuana decriminalized across the state will rally in Harrisburg on Wednesday morning. Pittsburgh NORML, the local chapter of the national marijuana reform organization, chartered a bus to bring people to the state capital. You can reserve a seat for $50 here.

“Ultimately the solution is FULL LEGALIZATION of cannabis that includes home grows,” organizer Keystone Cannabis Coalition wrote in an event description. “We know that this will take Pennsylvania a few years so we demand DECRIMINALIZATION NOW!”

Nightingale said “even some of our more conservative legislators are coming to the conclusion that this is not a tenable situation for Pennsylvanians.”

“We can’t have Pennsylvanians facing potentially inconsistent penalties or inconsistent prosecution depending on simply where they are,” he said.

There are currently two bills before the Pa. legislature on this topic. One, introduced by Republican Rep. Barry J. Jozwiak, would make the possession of under 30 grams of marijuana a summary offense, as opposed to a misdemeanor, for a first or second incident. The average amount of weed in a joint is 0.32 grams, according to one estimate. Under Jozwiak’s bill, the state would no longer automatically suspend the driver’s license of a person cited for this offense. The maximum fine would be $300, although that amount and other penalties would increase for the third and subsequent offenses.

The other bill, introduced by Pittsburgh Democrat Rep. Ed Gainey, also decriminalizes the possession of under 30 grams marijuana, but doesn’t increase the penalties after the second offense. The fine is also lower, at $100 maximum.

“We have to change the whole concept of what we’re doing on the war on drugs,” Gainey told The Incline. “We’ve been on this war on drugs for the past 60 years, and all we’ve gotten is more ODs, more suicides and more homicides. What we haven’t got is more rehabilitation. What we’ve done is put more people into the criminal justice system.”

Both bills have bipartisan support. Allegheny County’s Dom Costa and Tony DeLuca are co-sponsors of Jozwiak’s bill, and Pittsburgh Rep. Dan Frankel is co-sponsoring Gainey’s.

Gainey said he’s not sure if his bill will get a committee vote. The biggest hurdle to getting it passed, he added, is education about what decriminalization will actually accomplish. “We’re hoping and we’re pushing it,” he said. “I know we’ll continue to push it until the leaders up here hear.”

He also has a different idea about how to change his colleagues’ stance on marijuana: require drug testing.

“I would be amazed how fast this thing would change if we as legislators had to take drug tests,” Gainey said. “I believe if we’re going to create laws legislating the drug industry, we shouldn’t legislate nobody until we legislate ourselves.”

Nightingale said the rally is one way to communicate to the legislature how important this issue is. He urged people who can’t attend but who do support decriminalization to contact their state rep and senator. (Find yours here.)

“It’s critical for us to continue to make sure that our representatives hear our voices and that we’re continuing to fight for comprehensive reform,” he said.

Nightingale conceded that there are “lingering prejudices” to marijuana reform and elected officials who may never agree it should be treated like alcohol.

But he added that it’s important to share with legislators the “realistic collateral consequences of even a simple small-amount conviction,” like a loss of employment.

“We really want our representatives to understand by maintaining marijuana prohibition you are really hurting average Pennsylvanians on a daily basis,” he said.

A bill in the state legislature is not the only way Pennsylvania could potentially see the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana. Nightingale is also trying to get it done in court.

He argues that marijuana shouldn’t be classified as a Schedule 1 drug in Pennsylvania, which means it has no medical benefits. That classification doesn’t gel with the state’s medical marijuana law, which covers 17 conditions.

Nightingale said his first motion was rejected by Allegheny County Judge Edward J. Borkowski last week. He has another motion pending before Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski today and is aware of at least one other attorney pursuing a similar path. Ultimately, the goal is to get the argument before the state Supreme Court.

“We’re hopeful that Judge Sasinoski may not dismiss it [and] may look more at the merits of the motion,” he said. “The first shot, we weren’t successful with. But we’re going to continue to litigate these until we get one that we’re taking up on appeal.”