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Philly420: Pa. lawmakers seek stiffer fines for marijuana

Many jurisdictions across the country are reducing fines and penalties for marijuana, and in several cases even outright legalizing it. In Philadelphia, we have seen great success with the new policy of civil citations of $25 and $100. But a group of politicians in Harrisburg wants to go in the opposite direction.

State Rep. Barry Jozwiak (R-Berks), a former state trooper, and St. Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D-Berks) want to steeply increase fines for possessing small amounts of cannabis.

Both are proposing bills that would move marijuana from being a criminal misdemeanor to a summary offense. That's a good concept-- but not quite decriminalization.

The current statute says that offenders must pay a fine of "no more than $500." This gives prosecutors and judges the discretion to levy fines that are usually in the $200 range.

But the new schemes would carry a minimum fine of $500 for the first offense and jump to $750 for the second. Under Caltagirone's plan a third offense (or more) and the fine could rise to over $1,000 and require drug treatment. Third and subsequent offenses would still be a considered a criminal misdemeanor under Jozwiak's measure. All for possessing a joint.

Right now, offenders are often allowed to plea to a lesser offense like disorderly conduct. This alleviates some of the harsher, ancillary penalties that come with a drug conviction such as a 6-month to 2-year drivers license suspension. Unfortunately, that would not change if possessing weed is downgraded to a summary.

Although the current misdemeanor carries a potential of up to 30 days in jail, incarceration is rare for simple possession. Philadelphia was the only county with a policy of mandatory custodial arrest and immediate holding cells for the offense. Of course, the city dramatically changed that procedure with the new civil citation structure.

The real problem is that the hefty fines could actually clog up the courts and police resources even further. There is a national epidemic of low- and middle-income residents ending up in jail because they cannot afford to pay expensive municipal fines.

Patrick Nightingale, a criminal defense attorney from Pittsburgh, is pleased to see the issue of statewide decrim being discussed. "But reform should not place unreasonable burdens on the very people it was designed to protect," he said.

"Even if Pennsylvania jails are not bursting at the seams with cannabis consumers, there are still significant and potentially lifelong collateral consequences," Nightingale added, "Those convicted often face a loss of employment as well as a mandatory driver's license suspension, regardless of whether a motor vehicle was involved."

A civil fine is not a crime or a summary offense. Gov. Wolf has been an outspoken advocate of decriminalization. If legislators in Harrisburg want a proven model they need look no further than the Commonwealth's largest city. Taking Philadelphia's decrim model statewide could save municipalities $20 million per year and stop more than 20,000 arrests.

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and co-chair of PhillyNorml. Contact him at