A proposal to decriminalize possession of a small amount of marijuana in Luzerne County is set for discussion at next week’s county council legislative committee meeting.
County Councilman Edward Brominski publicly requested the discussion during last week’s council work session and formally submitted an email Tuesday requesting its placement on the committee agenda.
Decriminalization — switching from criminal penalties to fines — for possession of a small amount of marijuana would reduce incarcerations, Brominski maintains.
“I feel it would help us to relieve the overpopulation of the county prison and probably prevent people with minor offenses no worse than DUI from being placed in prison,” Brominski said at the work session.
He has pointed to successful decriminalization ordinances in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Harrisburg officials also are considering an ordinance, according to published reports.
Councilman Harry Haas, who chairs the legislative committee, asked if counties have jurisdiction to enact their own marijuana possession laws.
Assistant county Solicitor Shannon Crake is researching the matter.
Under state law, possession of up to 30 grams (about an ounce) of marijuana is a misdemeanor carrying a maximum of 30 days in jail and $500 in fines.
County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said Tuesday she must review the solicitor’s ruling and details of Brominski’s proposal before weighing in, although she stressed any assertions that decriminalization would significantly reduce the county prison population are false.
The reason: most, if not all, cases of a small amount of marijuana possession are now funneled through the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, which allows participants to avoid jail and get their charges erased from their record upon completion, Salavantis said.
First-time offenders and those not convicted of the same offense within the past 10 years are eligible for ARD.
The District Attorney’s Office added the marijuana charge to the ARD program in 2013, largely driven by the push to reduce prison overcrowding, Salavantis said.
Those charged with small-amount marijuana possession and nothing else typically are released on their own recognizance at the magisterial district judge level as they await adjudication, Salavantis said.
“At this point, they aren’t sitting in jail,” Salavantis said.
Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said Tuesday he is not aware of any Pennsylvania county discussing or attempting to implement marijuana decriminalization legislation.
City decriminalization ordinances may be more viable because only one police department is involved.
Luzerne County has around 48 locally-managed municipal police departments in addition to county detectives and state police, Salavantis recently said.
Under Philadelphia’s ordinance, implemented in 2014, someone possessing less than 30 grams of marijuana can receive a $25 citation.
Pittsburgh’s law, which took effect in an amended form last month, allows police the option to issue a $25 summary citation for possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana.
State Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny County, recently announced he will be introducing a “landmark” decriminalization bill modeled after the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh ordinances that “would completely eliminate any potential incarceration” for a small amount of marijuana possession statewide.
The legislation would amend the state’s Controlled Substances Act to grade possession of a small amount of marijuana as a summary offense instead of a misdemeanor, eliminating “wasteful court proceedings,” said a statement on his website.
“This legislation, I believe, reflects the will of Pennsylvanians who are considering decriminalization on the local level,” he said. “Overwhelming evidence supports the notion that non-violent drug and alcohol abuse is a public health issue that requires treatment, and not imprisonment; it is not a criminal issue.”
More than 18,000 are charged with minor marijuana possession in Pennsylvania annually, costing counties and cities more than $33 million in public safety and court expenses per year, he said. The breakdown for Luzerne County was not immediately available Tuesday.
Gainey said the misdemeanor conviction can lead to loss of employment, public housing and education loan eligibility and other “lifelong implications.”
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.