Law changes penalties for marijuana possession

State College Borough Council in August passed a rule allowing police to enforce some marijuana offenses as an ordinance violation rather than filing criminal charges.
State College Borough Council in August passed a rule allowing police to enforce some marijuana offenses as an ordinance violation rather than filing criminal charges.

When State College lowered the penalty for marijuana possession, it raised something else — the possibility of confusion.

Since the change went into effect in September, possessing marijuana is no longer a misdemeanor in the borough but instead a summary offense, similar to an open-container violation.

An individual in possession of a small amount of marijuana — 30 grams or less — could be issued a non-traffic citation with a $250 fine. Someone caught using marijuana could be charged in the same way, with a fine of $350.

Confusion could arise because the ordinance applies only to the borough. On Penn State property and in neighboring municipalities, such as Ferguson, Harris and Patton Townships and Bellefonte, marijuana possession is still a misdemeanor.

“That’s the thing people aren’t realizing — this didn’t legalize marijuana in State College,” State College police Officer Adam Salyards said. “What this did was make a borough ordinance that lowered the penalties, so if we see a rise in the number of cases, it might be due to a misunderstanding.”

“The first year will be a learning period — for everybody,” he said.

From the university’s perspective, “the most important thing is that we are required to enforce state and federal law. The state law trumps this ordinance,” said Penn State police interim Chief Michael Lowery.

Another key change as a result of the ordinance deals with individuals’ criminal records.

A misdemeanor conviction can be expunged after completion of an accelerated rehabilitative disposition program, $1,200 in fees and a one-year probation. But under the ordinance, conviction on the summary offense will remain on a person’s record for five years.

“As much as everybody thinks an ordinance violation is a better charge, you have to understand the process,” Lowery said.

“A student who is getting ready to graduate and is out looking for a job and gets cited for an ordinance violation — that’s going to be on their record for the next five years. They can’t get that expunged, and if the job asks them if they have ever been charged with anything, they are going to have to put that on there,” he said.

“While a misdemeanor charge does bring a higher fine, 99 percent of students who have a marijuana charge get it expunged in a year’s time,” Lowery added.

Attorney Jason Dunkle pointed out another twist: While possessing marijuana is covered under the ordinance as a summary offense, possession of paraphernalia such as pipes is considered a misdemeanor.

“How are you going to smoke it without a pipe or rolling papers? Those things are still considered paraphernalia,” he said. “Another problem is how are you going to get marijuana? If you grow it yourself, that is a felony offense. If you buy it, whoever sold it to you could be charged with a felony.”

“People are saying that it is decriminalized, but they think that it means legalized,” Dunkle added.

Salyards noted it may take some time to see how the ordinance works out.

“Last year we had about 15 cases that the ordinance would have applied to, so I don’t know if we are going to see any difference in the amount of cases because it is still illegal,” he said.

Matt Castle is a Penn State journalism student.