At a legislative committee meeting Thursday, Wilkes-Barre resident Matthew Ford encouraged Luzerne County officials to get involved in efforts to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
“The worst thing we could do for (drug offenders) is alienate them from the herd. We want to bring them into the fold,” said Ford, who was among several at the meeting advocating for decriminalization, which would give police departments in the county the option to impose fines instead of a misdemeanor criminal charge.
Ford said a misdemeanor charge can put a “black mark” on offenders, preventing them from obtaining jobs and “participating in society.”
The subject came up because Councilman Edward Brominski had proposed a county-wide decriminalization ordinance mirrored after similar ones in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, although he did not attend Tuesday’s legislative committee to participate in the discussion.
Brominski said Thursday he missed the meeting because county assistant Solicitor Shannon Crake had issued an opinion that the county didn’t have legal authority to impose such an ordinance, leaving him with the impression the effort was futile.
After hearing feedback from some attendees, Brominski asked the county law office for a second opinion and said he will, at minimum, honor a request from Ford and others to push for continued discussion and passage of a county resolution supporting state decriminalization legislation.
State Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny County, recently announced he will be introducing a decriminalization bill that would amend the state’s Controlled Substances Act to grade possession of a small amount of marijuana as a summary offense instead of a misdemeanor, eliminating “wasteful court proceedings.”
Crake said Tuesday she does not believe the county has jurisdiction to supersede state law, which classifies the possession of up to 30 grams (about an ounce) of marijuana as a misdemeanor offense, carrying a maximum of 30 days in jail and/or $500 in fines.
The county council also has no authority to tell municipal police departments throughout the county they “can no longer arrest for this offense,” Crake said. The state law governing the formation of home rule counties, including Luzerne, also says home rule entities don’t have authority to define penalties for misdemeanors or felonies, she said.
In response to an argument that the proposed county ordinance would reduce prison overcrowding, Crake said recent analysis showed there were no offenders lodged in the county prison solely on a small marijuana possession charge.
Crake said the concept of decriminalization has “merit” because it would free up police and prosecutors to spend more time on more serious cases.
“It’s just we don’t have the authority to do it,” she said.
Reading resident Les Stark, who heads the Keystone Cannabis Coalition, respectfully challenged Crake’s legal opinion Tuesday, saying the ordinance would not supersede state law because it would give police an option — not a mandate — to charge small marijuana possession as a summary offense.
Officials in Harrisburg and State College also are discussing decriminalization ordinances, and Wilkes-Barre officials may address it now that they have decriminalized possession of marijuana paraphernalia, Stark said.
A misdemeanor offense is a “big deal” because it could lead to the loss of job opportunities, government grants, housing and college loans, he said. A county resolution supporting Gainey’s upcoming legislation would help because the “wheels of state government turn very slow,” he said.
Carl Romanelli, of Wilkes-Barre, requested educated and objective discussion on the topic.
“We have to bury all of the propaganda and lies we’ve been fed for years,” he said.
Jeff Zick, of Susquehanna County, applauded county officials for “taking up this issue.”
Bill Dennis, of Kingston, said he worked at a local emergency room for 31 years before retiring two weeks ago and had dealt with a steady stream of drug overdoses, but saw no deaths or accidents caused by marijuana.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.