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Harrisburg marijuana decriminalization
Harrisburg council members plan to weigh changes to a proposal to reduce marijuana penalties at a committee meeting Wednesday May 18, 2016. (Jeff Chiu, David Wenner)

HARRISBURG- Harrisburg council members plan to get into the weeds Wednesday night with the mayor’s proposal to reduce penalties for marijuana possession.

Council members plan to discuss which parts of the proposal they favor, and which parts they may want to change at a public safety committee meeting set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in council chambers.

Council members previously staged two public meetings to get input on the proposal, which would reduce the crime to a summary offense, the same level as a traffic ticket. Currently, an arrest for marijuana possession is counted as a misdemeanor and remains a part of a person’s criminal history.

Under Mayor Eric Papenfuse’s proposal, a third arrest for marijuana possession would revert to a misdemeanor. He also proposed a graduating fines starting at $100 for a first offense.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have both reduced penalties for marijuana possession. In Philadelphia, the fine is $25 and there is no “three strikes, you’re out” provision.

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Papenfuse defended the provisions by saying he wanted to give people a second chance for making a mistake, but that he didn’t want to encourage drug use.

Some council members, however, have disagreed with those provisions and may look to change them Wednesday night. Some residents also said they thought the mayor’s fine schedule was too high considering the poverty in the city.

“It will be a working council session,” said Councilman Cornelius Johnson, who chairs the public safety committee. “We’d like to come to a final ordinance that we can bring for a vote.”

The public will have a chance to address council members at Wednesday’s committee meeting, Johnson said.

If the ordinance moves out of committee, it could go before the full council for a vote as soon as May 24.


Also on the agenda Wednesday night is a provision from the mayor’s office to put complaint forms online for residents who wish to file complaints against police officers. The mayor is seeking ways to make it easier for residents to file complaints.

The police department, by ordinance, is supposed to report annually to council about the number and kind of complaints filed against officers, but has not done so in recent years, Johnson said.

“I’m not sure why,” Johnson said, adding that council members want to review all procedures related to police complaints. “We need to know if we need to fine tune the ordinance.”

Police Chief Thomas Carter told PennLive in 2014 that the department had  received no official complaints in 2014 and just one that he could recall in 2013.

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