Pennsylvania considers lowering penalty for marijuana possession

A measure pending in Pennsylvania's Legislature would change possession of a small amount of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a summary offense. Philadelphia already has such an ordinance on its books. (Ted S. Warren/AP Photo, file)

A measure pending in Pennsylvania's Legislature would change possession of a small amount of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a summary offense. Philadelphia already has such an ordinance on its books. (Ted S. Warren/AP Photo, file)

A measure that would reduce penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana has advanced in the Pennsylvania Legislature.

It almost certainly won’t get through the full Legislature before the session ends next month — but its backers still see this as an important step forward.

When House Bill 928 was first introduced last session, it didn’t even get a committee vote. This session, it sailed through the House Judiciary Committee, 19-5.

Bill sponsor Rep. Barry Jozwiak, R-Berks, is banking on even better results when he brings it back next session.

“It’s a struggle, quite frankly,” he said. “People have to [get an explanation on] what this means and what it does, and after they hear it, it makes sense to them.”

Under current law, low-grade pot possession is a misdemeanor that can merit 30 days in jail and a $500 fine in the cases prosecuted by a district attorney. Those found guilty also lose their license for a month.

Jozwiak’s bill would change possession to a summary offense, shrinking the fine, axing the jail time, and getting rid of license suspensions for first and second infractions.

A number of Pennsylvania cities — including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and State College — have passed similar measures.

The measure does have detractors, including Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Berks. In committee debate, he told Jozwiak the bill constituted “watering down the law. “

Jozwiak argued that the bill, fundamentally, is a way for police to save money.

“It’s costing taxpayers millions and millions of dollars — tens of millions of dollars — to collect minor fines,” he said.

Major law enforcement groups — including the Fraternal Order of Police and State Troopers Association — have said they support the bill.

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