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October 10, 2018

Pennsylvania bill takes step toward marijuana decriminalization

If approved, move would be similar to pot possession measures already in place in Philadelphia

Legislation Marijuana
marijuana plants PA Images/Sipa USA

Marijuana plants are seen at the The Hemp Embassy Shop in Milan, Italy.

Pennsylvania lawmakers took an important step this week toward statewide marijuana decriminalization, clearing the first hurdle for a measure that would eliminate jail time and lower the penalties for possessing small amounts of the drug.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 14-9 on Tuesday in favor of a bill that downgrades possession of less than 30 grams of cannabis to a summary offense. Current Pennsylvania law treats possession as a third-degree misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500 and a potential driver's license suspension.

Under the proposed law, the fine would be capped at $300, and there would be no jail time or license suspensions.

Opposition from Republican Rep. Jerry Knowles would have added an amendment barring local jurisdictions from applying their own decriminalization policies, retroactively impacting the cities, like Philadelphia, that have taken action independently. The proposal was scrapped.

Pittsburgh, State College and Harrisburg also have decriminalized marijuana possession in recent years.

The policy resulted in a 75 percent reduction in marijuana arrests in Philadelphia from the time of its implementation through 2017.

Statistics at the state level show a much more alarming picture. An ACLU report released last year found that marijuana arrests had risen by 33 percent from 2010 to 2016, not including Philadelphia. Black people were more than eight times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession during that period of time.

Proponents of the state bill, including Republican sponsor Rep. Barry Jozwiak, say the measure is needed to clear low-level cases from clogged courts and save police resources.

The proposal will need full approval from the legislature and a signature from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who is up for reelection next month and previously said he would sign a decriminalization bill.

The push for decriminalization comes just a few weeks after Pennsylvania Rep. Jake Wheatley introduced a bill to legalize recreational marijuana and release prisoners jailed for crimes associated with cannabis.