HARRISBURG- Harrisburg city council members Tuesday night reduced the penalties for marijuana possession, becoming the third city in the Commonwealth to do so.
The unanimous approval by council followed five months of public meetings and council discussions to reduce the charge of possession of a small amount of marijuana to the same level as a traffic ticket.
The new ordinance also reduces possession of marijuana paraphernalia to a summary offense. Both charges previously had been enforced as misdemeanors under state law.
The changes only apply to arrests made inside the city limits.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse first floated a proposal in February that included escalating fines starting at $100, but council members made notable changes last month, including some that stemmed from ideas or concerns shared by residents who spoke at a series of public meetings.
The amendments by council members reduced the fine for marijuana possession to $75 and increased the fine to $150 for marijuana use to discourage public use of the drug.
Council members kept the mayor’s proposed “three-strikes” provision, where a third arrest would revert back to a misdemeanor.
But council members added language to specify that the third arrest would have to occur within five years to revert to the higher criminal classification of a misdemeanor. A third arrest outside of the time frame could be processed as a summary offense under city ordinance.
If council members did not include the charge of marijuana paraphernalia in their amended ordinance, the charge would have remained a misdemeanor and their efforts to reduce marijuana penalties may have been in vain. Most arrests for marijuana possession involve a secondary charge, which is often for paraphernalia.
Council members said they supported reducing marijuana penalties to increase police officers’ efficiency and free up their limited time. Previously, officers were required to appear in court for every marijuana possession case and the district attorney often reduced the penalty to fines anyway.
Council members said they also supported the changes because arrests for small amounts of marijuana can result in the loss of employment, housing opportunities, student financial aid and other long-term consequences that seem to outweigh the infraction.
Council President Wanda Williams thanked Councilman Cornelius Johnson for taking the proposal and running with it. She said she asked the city administration to come up with a proposal after learning about similar legislation approved in Philadelphia.
Although police officers will be able to charge offenders under the new city ordinance with reduced penalties, they will still have the option to charge under the more serious state charges. And violators could still lose their driving privileges. Under state law, an arrest for drug possession triggers a driver’s license suspension.
Pittsburgh is the other city in Pennsylvania that previously passed a law to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.