Marijuana: Western Pennsylvania Police Chiefs Say Decriminalize It 7/15/05

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Under Pennsylvania law, possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana -- slightly more than an ounce -- is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Possession of more than 30 grams is also a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. If some western Pennsylvania police chiefs had their way, that would change. Decriminalize it, they told the Allegheny Times late last week -- at least the smaller amounts.

The small town top cops interviewed by the Times cited the toll in police resources and the relative innocuousness of marijuana compared to other drugs. "To prosecute takes a lot of police time and creates overtime expenses," said Ambridge Police Chief Dave Sabol, a 37-year veteran officer. A typical marijuana arrest costs his department $60 to $100 in courtroom overtime expenses, Sabol said, and consumes a lot of officers' time in report writing and court appearances.

It would be better to decriminalize possession of "personal use" amounts, he said. Simple marijuana possession should be treated as a summary offense, such as disorderly conduct or traffic violations, said Sabol. With summary offenses, there is no arrest and no criminal record. Instead a citation is issued.

New Sewickley Township Police Chief John Daley told the Times he agreed with Sabol. "To just issue them a summary citation with an appropriate fine set by the legislature, that would serve a purpose. It could work, just not for greater amounts," Daley said.

Acting Rochester Township Police Chief Joe DeLuca said in many cases that is already happening de facto. Many first-time offenders are charged only with disorderly conduct, he said.

"I can say that a lot of officers when they catch someone with a just a joint, it will be reduced to disorderly, a summary violation, because it's such an insignificant amount, rather than proceed with a misdemeanor possession," DeLuca said.

To be clear, the chiefs are not advocating an Amsterdam-style loosening in the rugged hills of Pennsylvania. "Now, the guy that has a couple of pounds on him, that needs to stay where it is, as a criminal offense," Sabol said, noting that people found with large amounts are usually dealers, and might be dealing other drugs. "Every officer wants to get to the dealer," Sabol added.

Pot smokers don't cause him too much worry, said Sabol. "Most people you catch with personal-use marijuana aren't causing a lot of other problems," Sabol said. "People who use crack or other opiates have to steal to support that habit."

But some local police worried that decriminalizing marijuana would be "risky," even though neighboring Ohio has long decriminalized the possession of up to nearly four ounces (100 grams) with no apparent outbreaks of Reefer Madness. "Marijuana may not be all that dangerous, but it's a gateway drug, and they lead to more dangerous drugs such as heroin or cocaine," Center Township Police Chief Barry Kramer said. "By decriminalizing even a small amount, you would be sort of condoning it."

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Issue #395 -- 7/15/05

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