State College

State College Borough Council holds hearing on pot penalties

A proposal to make marijuana possession a summary offense in the borough needs further discussion by Borough Council before adoption consideration.

A public hearing on the proposed ordinance was held by council Monday, with almost all of those speaking on the proposal in favor of enacting it.

The idea was first proposed by Penn State senior Luis Rolfo, a Florida resident, during the March 14 council meeting. During the public comment portion of the meeting, Rolfo asked that council consider allowing police to enact a civil penalty similar to ordinances in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Any drug conviction results in a risk of a student losing federal student aid, he said. Rolfo added that he has campaigned for medical marijuana in Florida.

“This would not legalize cannabis in State College,” he said in March, “but would rather give police an easier means to deal with infractions. It would be a quicker, easier resolution for all parties.”

The ordinance drafted by the borough creates a summary offense for the possession of small amounts of marijuana under certain terms and conditions. According to the ordinance, a “small amount” is defined as 30 grams or less of marijuana or 8 grams or less of hashish for personal use.

Individuals found in violation of the ordinance would be issued a non-traffic citation, the ordinance said. Minors older than the age of 14 would also be issued the citation; the parent or guardian of the minor would also be found in violation.

Individuals found possessing a small amount would be subject to a fine of $250, the draft said. Those found smoking in a public place would be fined $350.

Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said the ordinance was drafted with the borough’s open-container laws as a basis, and the fines reflect the open-container fines.

Police Chief Tom King laid out some details regarding current law, saying the police department is still in the process of researching different points of the ordinance. Under current state law, he said, anyone found in possession of a small amount is guilty of a misdemeanor crime, punishable with up to 30 days in jail or a fine of $500.

King brought up several areas the ordinance doesn’t cover that council may want to consider in the future, including how the ordinance would be enforced on the Penn State campus, how enforcement would change across municipal lines and language that ensures the ordinance doesn’t refer to synthetic marijuana.

The ordinance also does not cover drug paraphernalia, he said, which many are in possession of along with the marijuana. Possession of paraphernalia is still considered a misdemeanor.

King gave council some borough statistics, saying of the 33 people charged by the department with possession of a small amount in 2015, only 13 would have fallen under the proposed ordinance. The remaining 20 were charged with additional misdemeanor charges or were in College or Harris townships.

A majority of cases that plead to possession under the current law are offered accelerated rehabilitative disposition, he said, which allows for a person’s record to be expunged after a year. However, there doesn’t appear to be an opportunity for such a clearing under a borough ordinance.

“I don’t know of any noise violations that have been expunged,” King said. “But underage drinking charges have, because we have a law for that.”

Les Stark, executive director of the Keystone Cannabis Coalition, reached out to the CDT prior to the hearing saying while it was good that the borough was considering changes to its marijuana law, the fines were simply too high.

Stark referred to a decriminalization bill seeking state House co-sponsorship through Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny. The bill proposes a summary offense for those in possession of 30 grams of marijuana and a fine of no more than $100.

“The State College Borough Council should not pass a fine that will exceed what the eventual state legislation will say,” Stark said. “These higher fines are a burden and hardship for lower income people who will have trouble paying.”

State College criminal defense attorney Andrew Shubin argued in favor of an ARD for summary offenses at the hearing, saying the program is often not available for second-time offenders since it is at the prosecuting attorney’s discretion. An ARD at a summary level, though, would likely be favorable to local judges and would allow for the individual’s record to be eventually expunged.

About a dozen residents spoke during the hearing, with all but two in favor of the ordinance. Many cited civil reasons for their support, while some relayed their own experiences regarding marijuana and the law.

Ultimately, council voted unanimously to discuss the ordinance further at a future meeting or work session. A future discussion date was not suggested.

“I think ... the war on drugs has been an abject failure,” Councilman Evan Myers said, “What it really has been is a war on the young, the poor and the people of color, and that’s especially true of marijuana.”

Rolfo, who was in attendance Monday, said he was happy to see the “tremendous amount of support” the ordinance gained and was also happy to see flaws being discussed.

“I want to make sure this is done the right way,” he said, “and I want to make sure this moves forward as quickly as possible.”

Jeremy Hartley: 814-231-4616, @JJHartleyNews