Pittsburgh revelers planning on toking up during this weekend’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities might want to rethink it. Despite the decriminalization of marijuana in the city last year by Pittsburgh City Council, you’ll still get charged with a misdemeanor if you’re caught.
Under the ordinance, marijuana possession would be punishable by a civil fine of up to $100 for less than 30 grams of marijuana or 8 grams of hashish, which has a higher concentration of THC, the psychoactive ingredient responsible for the high. And technically, that law is in effect. However, there’s currently no procedure in place for handling civil citations in the city court system.
“There is an issue about how citations under this ordinance will be processed through the local municipal courts system,” says Patrick Nightingale, who worked on the legislation and is the executive director of Pittsburgh NORML, a marijuana legalization advocacy group.
Until city officials figure it out, police will continue charging those in possession of marijuana with a misdemeanor. The ordinance could go back to Pittsburgh City Council for an amendment in the coming weeks.
One possible solution would be to change the language of the legislation. Instead of defining the possession of a small amount of marijuana as a civil offense, an amendment would change it to a summary offense that doesn’t include jail time, similar to disorderly conduct.
But a summary offense could appear on a person’s criminal record because summary offenses must be filed on the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania court’s dockets. And that’s exactly what supporters of the ordinance were trying to avoid.
“If we do that, it implies that the violation is of a criminal nature and not of a civil nature, which is kind of the intent of the legislation,” says Nightingale. “If we’re trying to protect people from having collateral negative criminal consequences associated with this, we might be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Now, Nightingale is looking into whether the ordinance can be handled in the same way code violations like building-code violations are handled. He said the details could be worked out by the beginning of April.
“In my mind, it would’ve been handled the same way as issuing a parking ticket. But I didn’t specifically know how a parking ticket gets processed,” says Nightingale. “I came into it with a little naiveté. I didn’t anticipate there was going to be a difficulty processing it through the courts.”
Aggie Brose, deputy director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., who worked on the legislation, cites the case of a local college student arrested for marijuana possession as an example of why these charges can be harmful.
“She got arrested, she got fingerprinted and the next year she couldn’t get her loans to go back to school,” says Brose. “I just knew something had to change.”
In the past, the punishment for possession was 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, but Brose says these charges were usually pleaded down to summary offenses. The problem with summary offenses, she says, is they take five years to be expunged from criminal records.
“We don’t want them to end up with an arrest record with fingerprints. It stops them from a job; it stops them from getting an apartment; it stops them from getting funds for college.”
But according to Nightingale and others, making possession a summary offense might be the only option.
Ultimately, the city’s power is limited. Complete decriminalization is in the state’s hands.
“The city’s ordinance does all it can under existing state law. Pittsburgh cannot go as far as a similar law approved in Philadelphia, as that city has a civil-fines office that processes such citations outside the criminal-courts system. No such office exists here,” Mayor Bill Peduto said in a statement. “The fact is that full decriminalization of small marijuana offenses must be done at the state level, as must be its approval for medical uses.”