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By a vote of 7-2, Pittsburgh City Council passed a measure to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana this morning.

The bill allows city police to fine up to $100 for possessing less than 30 grams of marijuana, or 8 grams of hashish, instead of citing them for a misdemeanor. Its sponsor, Public Safety Committee chair Daniel Lavelle, previously said the measure was intended to “help break the damning life-long consequences of unemployment, lack of education, and being caught in a revolving criminal justice system.”

Pittsburgh City Council votes to decriminalize marijuana
Pittsburgh City Council votes to decriminalize marijuana

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who along with Darlene Harris voted against the bill, said she sympathized with those goals, but said it was “irresponsible” to pass such a bill at the local level. She noted that her district, which encompasses southern and western neighborhoods in the city, borders other municipalities where such measures have not been discussed.

Given that, she said, “I think [the bill] gives a false sense of security to people driving on the streets,” and if people were pulled over by police in those communities, the confrontation “could actually escalate to something much more serious than a fine.”

Ms. Harris echoed those concerns, arguing that changing drug laws was something only state officials could do. “We have opened ourselves to many lawsuits by overstepping our bounds this year,” she said, alluding to legislation that attempts to impose various requirements on city employers.

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The bill’s supporters did not directly respond to those concerns about the bill, which passed by a 6-1 vote last week. But Councilman Ricky Burgess said that while he didn’t condone drug use, “I think young people who make mistakes should not suffer lifelong consequences on something that I think is perhaps not life-threatening.”

Mayor Bill Peduto has pledged to pass the bill. “The Mayor agrees with Council members, the District Attorney and many others that this is a common sense change that will help protect the futures of young people in our communities,” said mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty.

Patrick Nightingale, a longtime marijuana-reform activist, hailed the bill’s passage, saying it “will protect Pittsburghers of all colors and all ages from unwarranted and unnecessary police interactions, and it will help police more efficiently utilize limited resources.”

In response to Ms. Kail-Smith’s concerns, he said, “to say you don’t want to protect city residents because of what may happen in a nearby community is absurd. We’re already dropping these cases at city court. Why do you want to pay officers overtime for a court appearance over nothing?”

He agreed with Ms. Kail-Smith and Ms. Harris that ideally such reforms should be passed statewide. But, he said, “We just don’t see any movement there.” The Republican-controlled legislation has stymied efforts to pass a bill allowing the use of cannabinoids for medical purposes, he noted. Passing local measures is important, he said, in part because “we need to be able to say that this is something Pennsylvanians want, and to demonstrate that through local action.”

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