The Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a vote on a bill, HB 1422, that seeks to massively increase fines for marijuana possession.
Although HB 1422 downgrades 30 grams of marijuana or less from a misdemeanor to a summary, those convicted will live with the burden of a criminal record.
Legislators, marijuana reform advocates and potential medical marijuana patients will speak in Harrisburg about the problems with HB 1422 tomorrow. The press conference takes place in the East Wing Rotunda at 2:00PM on 6/14.
Chris Goldstein is on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML and has extensively researched marijuana arrest statistics in Pa.
"Young people, low income residents and people of color will suffer greatly under an increase in possession fines," said Goldstein.
The Pennsylvania Controlled Substances and Cosmetics Act describes that offenders can be "sentenced to imprisonment not exceeding thirty days, or ordered to pay a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars ($500), or both."
HB 1422 would change "not exceeding" to "not less than" turning the old maximum fine for marijuana into the new mandatory minimum fine. And that is just for the first offense. HB1422 then proposes graduated fines: $750 for the second offense and $1,000 for for subsequent offenses.
Representative Ed Gainey (D - Pittsburgh) thinks there is a better approach. "If we're really trying to help people move on with their lives, rather than face a lifetime of negative consequences, then this legislation is not the way to go," said Rep. Gainey, "Fines and penalties must be reasonable and responsible."
Rep. Gainey has sponsored legislation, HB 2076, that would have a maximum fine of $100.
Jail time or the current maximum $500 fine is rarely imposed for marijuana possession cases. Philadelphia has a code violation of $25 and Pittsburgh has a $100 ticket.
Derek Rosenzweig of PhillyNORML said, "Nobody deserves jail for marijuana, and nobody deserves to go broke or go to jail over paying a fine."
Lolly Bentch Meyers, who worked with PA Campaign For Compassion on gaining access to medical cannabis for her daughter said, "My heart breaks at the thought of adult patients being subject to such harsh fines."
Act 16, a medical marijuana law, was signed this year, but a working program will not be running until 2018. Luke Shultz, 54, from Bernville, Pa lives with chronic pains and is waiting for the full implementation. He says that patients who use marijuana now to ease their suffering, "should not be exposed to draconian laws with heavy fines."
"Indeed, no one should have to face such punishment for possessing a plant that has extensive medical utility," said Shultz.
Pennsylvania saw 17,525 marijuana possession arrests in 2015. The majority of those arrests were performed by local police. Just 23 percent - or 4,172 arrests - were made by state police.
A report by the RAND Corporation estimated that each marijuana arrest costs $1,266. Bringing the cases to court costs an additional $1,000.Using that math, Pennsylvania spent about $39.5 million last year enforcing criminal marijuana possession laws.
Erica McBride and Les Stark of the Keystone Cannabis Coalition said that a tax and regulate model is available if revenue is the motivation.
"If the state wants to profit from cannabis, legalize it," said McBride.
Stark added, "There is a growing majority of Pennsylvania citizens who are demanding real reform with regards to our marijuana laws."
Patrick Nightingale, a criminal defense attorney and director of Pittsburgh NORML, has been an outspoken advocate of reducing fines below $100.
"While I am heartened that the Committee is considering legislation that would reduce the criminal penalties for minor cannabis possession, the suggestion that cannabis consumers be saddled with severe mandatory fines in excess of other summary criminal offenses is purely punitive," said Nightingale, "Mandatory fines only serve to strip the judiciary of its discretion and prevents a judicial officer from fashioning a sentence that is appropriate under the circumstances of the offense conduct and the offender him or herself."
Advocates are urging House members to amend HB 1422 to avoid the costly and unnecessary consequences of increasing the fines for half of all the drug possession arrests in Pennsylvania.
Contact: Chris Goldstein (267) 702 3731, email@example.com
EVENT: Marijuana press conference: 2:00PM Tuesday June 14, East Wing Rotunda