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Philly420: City of Harrisburg could join Pittsburgh, Philly in decriminalizing marijuana

Harrisburgh Mayor Eric Papenfuse wants Pennsylvania's capital to join Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in decriminalizing marijuana possession — and legislation doing just that is not on the table.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse wants Pennsylvania's capital to join Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in decriminalizing marijuana possession — and legislation doing just that is now on the table.

A bill was introduced by City Council on Feb. 11 that would downgrade some amounts of marijuana possession to a summary offense.

If successful, it would mean that handcuffs won't need to come out during police encounters for less than 30 grams of weed.

Data from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System shows that 71 percent of the marijuana possession arrests by Harrisburg City Police were black residents. That racial disparity to cannabis prohibition enforcement is endemic to urban areas.

City spokeswoman Joyce M. Davis said Thursday that Harrisburg was looking at a variety of ways to address "African American males being incarcerated for nonviolent crimes," including marijuana.

Mayor Papenfuse said, "We understand that people make mistakes. We don't want to unduly clog the criminal justice system, we want more officers on the street and we want to give people and their families the ability to change without a permanent record for a criminal misdemeanor."

The current plan proposes more expensive fines than in Philadelphia, where citations of $25 for possession and $100 for smoking in public were implemented in 2014.

The Harrisburg ordinance would impose staged fines; $100 for the first offense, $200 for a second violation then third or subsequent offenses would go back to the state-level criminal misdemeanor.

Marijuana arrests by the Philadelphia police dropped more than 80 percent under the decrim policy. They went from 4,374 in 2013 down to 784 in 2015.

That prompted Pittsburgh City Council to follow suit with a similar ordinance that hits the streets in March.

What is unique about the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia ordinances, along with the language in the Harrisburg proposal, is that the codes apply to juveniles.

For instance, Delaware's statewide decriminalization law has higher fines for those 18 to 20 years old and only fully comes into play for those age 21 and up.

When it was publicly introduced before council last week, the Harrisburg proposal received resounding public support. Several councilors, including Council President Wanda Williams, also expressed support for the move.

The bill has been assigned to the Public Safety Committee. Hearings are expected in March.

Davis says that the intention is to get the ordinance approved as soon as possible.

Overall, Pennsylvania had 17,525 marijuana possession arrests in 2015. That is almost double the arrests for heroin and cocaine possession combined.

A medical marijuana bill has been stalled in the House since last year. No bill has been introduced for statewide decriminalization.

With more cities downgrading pot penalties and a shift happening on the state house's doorstep it may inspire Pa lawmakers to consider the issue.

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