The Judiciary Committee in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives voted to advance a marijuana decriminalization bill this week, moving the Keystone State one step closer to a significant shift in statewide cannabis enforcement.
Introduced by Republican Representative Barry Jozwiak, the initiative would reduce the penalty for possessing less than 30 grams of marijuana from a schedule three misdemeanor crime to a civil violation. Current penalties include 30 days in jail, a $500 fine, and potential driver’s license suspension, but would now be diminished to a simple $300 ticket and no time behind bars.
“This bill will reduce the workload in the court system, save millions of dollars, and allows police to file citations at the local district justice level,” Rep. Jozwiak wrote in a 2017 co-sponsorship memorandum. “Officers could now stay on duty, rather than be tied up in court for hours. This is a good economic decision.”
According to Marijuana Moment, the PA House committee passed the measure in a 14-9 vote on Tuesday with bipartisan support, moving the bill to a full legislative vote. If the bill is accepted by both the State House and Senate, Governor Tom Wolf has indicated that he would add his signature and ratify the decriminalization effort.
“I support decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana,” Gov. Wolf wrote on Twitter in 2017. “[We] shouldn’t focus on incarcerating people for possession of small amounts of marijuana.”
Over the past year, Pennsylvania has opened its state-approved medical marijuana program to thousands of patients suffering from cancer, Crohn's disease, glaucoma, and a bevy of other ailments. Looking towards even further cannabis reform efforts, Rep. Jake Wheatley introduced legislation last month to legalize cannabis for recreational adult-use. As Keystone State officials continue to fall in-line with their neighbors in New Jersey and other East Coast cannabis hubs like Massachusetts and Maine, the decriminalization measure is a solid start.
Still, like most efforts to partially end prohibition without full legalization, the Pennsylvania legislature has left a few loopholes that could allow police to continue making minor pot arrests. Per the bill’s current wording, Pennsylvanians found with marijuana inside of their car or on school grounds can still be charged with a misdemeanor crime.
“Pending review of the specific language that was voted out of committee, we are optimistic that this bill will help reduce the almost 20,000 Pennsylvanians caught up in the criminal justice system over minor cannabis possession,” Patrick Nightingale, executive director of Pittsburgh NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “We will be working with our allies in the House to offer amendments that will insure cannabis consumers do not face criminal prosecution under any circumstances for possession of a small amount.”
100 miles up Interstate 95 in New York City, lawmakers and police officials recently enacted their own decriminalization policy to reduce the number of public pot smokers clogging the judicial system. But after less than a month, Big Apple cops had already found new ways to persecute cannabis users.
In Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and a number of Pennsylvania’s largest cities, existing decriminalization laws have reduced cannabis arrests by up to 75% in recent years.
Putting a quick-ticking timer on the recently-advanced initiative, Pennsylvania’s current legislative session comes to a close on November 30th. Accordingly, lawmakers now have less than two months to convene final House and Senate votes on the decriminalization bill.
Follow Zach Harris on Twitter