On Dec. 21, 2015, the Pittsburgh City Council voted 7-2 to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Pittsburgh is now the second city in the state of Pennsylvania to decriminalize simple possession, with Philadelphia having passed similar legislation in late 2014.
Under the new law those caught with a small amount of marijuana, which is defined as 30 grams or less of dried marijuana or eight grams of hash, will be subject to a $25 fine. The penalty for smoking marijuana in public has been reduced to a $100 fine.
For those under the age of 18 who are fined, their parents will be responsible for paying the fines. At the court’s discretion, fines may be suspended in exchange for up to nine hours of community service.
The two council members that voted against the measure were Darlene Harris and Theresa Kail-Smith.
Speaking with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Councilwomen Theresa Kail-Smith expressed concerns that the bill would give those crossing city lines a “false sense of security,” which “could actually escalate to something much more serious than a fine.”
Opponents of the bills are worried that passing marijuana reform at the local level instead of at the state level will create confusion among neighboring law enforcement officials. “We have opened ourselves to many lawsuits by overstepping our bounds this year,” Councilwoman Darlene Harris told the International Business Times.
But supporters say that the bill will help free up law enforcement to pursue more serious crimes as well keep a large number of youthful offenders out of the criminal justice system, particularly African-Americans.
According to the ACLU, African-Americans are more four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than whites, despite similar usage rates. Supporters also point out that decriminalization will decrease the amount of paperwork law enforcement officers have to do for simple possession.
Although it is impossible to predict exactly how marijuana decriminalization will impact Pittsburgh, cities that have decriminalized marijuana have seen some positive effects. Since Philadelphia’s decriminalization law went into effect on Oct. 21, 2014, marijuana-related citations fell by 52 percent in one year, according to Philly.com.
“The citations were not nearly at the level that the arrests used to be, which was kind of a surprise,” said Philadelphia NORML board member Chris Goldstein. “It seems that marijuana possession has taken on a lower priority now that it’s become a civil citation.”
According to Reuters, the bill will now go before Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who has voiced support for the bill.
“The mayor agrees with council members, the district attorney and many others that this is a common sense change that will help protect the futures of young people in our communities,” said Tim McNulty, a spokesman for Peduto.