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How Would Local Marijuana Decriminalization Affect Penn State Students?

With Philadelphia poised to decriminalize marijuana, it is not surprising that Penn State's large community of marijuana users is optimistically speculating whether State College Borough may adopt a similar policy, and if so, what affect it would have. Quite frankly, the Philadelphia model of marijuana decriminalization would not really benefit most Penn State students caught with a small amount of marijuana, but the exact same approach should certainly help victims of marijuana prohibition in Philadelphia. gavel.pot.leaf.jpeg

Before we can look at the effects of impending decriminalization for Philadelphia versus hypothetical decriminalization in Happy Valley, we need to understand what exactly the Philadelphia approach entails. Recently, Philadelphia's City Council overwhelmingly passed a bill, which creates a local ordinance banning marijuana, just as it is already banned under the Pennsylvania Drug Device and Cosmetic Act. The key difference between Pennsylvania law and the Philadelphia city ordinance is the penalty. Under Pennsylvania law, possession of less than 30 grams of cannabis is an ungraded misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Under the Philadelphia city ordinance, which Mayor Nutter is expected to sign within the next few weeks, possession of less than 30 grams of cannabis would be punishable by a $25 fine, while toking in public would be punishable by a $100 fine.

It is not just the direct penalties for marijuana possession, which differ between Pennsylvania law and Philadelphia's decriminalization ordinance, but also the collateral or indirect consequences. A person charged with any misdemeanor in Pennsylvania is required to be fingerprinted and photographed. This information is then catalogued in the Pennsylvania State Police Central Repository of Criminal Records in Harrisburg, as well as NCIC, (National Crime Information Center), which is maintained by the FBI. In short, a non-violent marijuana user can very well end up with a criminal record, while a person convicted of a city ordinance will not have a criminal record. Additionally, a person convicted of drug possession, including marijuana, will lose his Pennsylvania driver's license for six months, even if the offense had nothing to do with driving, while those convicted of a city ordinance would not lose their driver's licenses. Lastly, a person convicted of drug possession under state law will lose his or her eligibility for federally subsidized student loans, while a person convicted of a city ordinance violation would not lose federally subsidized student loan eligibility.

So why would decimalization benefit Philadelphia's tokers more than their Penn State counterparts? The biggest factor is how the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) website works. The AOPC website contains the docket sheets for a variety of cases ranging from low level matters like unpaid parking tickets, traffic citations and local ordinance violations as well as Crimes Code summary offenses, misdemeanors, felonies and homicides. Unlike every other county in Pennsylvania, you cannot look up Philadelphia County summary offenses or local ordinance violations on the AOPC. Thus, these low level offenses in Philadelphia are hidden from background check providers, while they are plainly visible in every other county. Thus, if a Penn State student is charged with public drunkenness and disorderly conduct in State College, a prospective employer is likely to know about it, while it would be very difficult to find the same offenses in Philadelphia County.

The bottom line is that even if State College were to decriminalize marijuana, the fact that a student can plead guilty, pay a small fine and avoid a criminal record does not do him much good if prospective employers or graduate schools know about it anyway thanks to the AOPC website. And it is online court data bases like the AOPC, which private security companies rely upon when performing background checks. With ever more HR departments, landlords and employers favoring the more thorough backgrounds checks provided by private security companies over official background checks from the State Police and FBI, having a conviction for a marijuana-related city ordinance will look the same on a background check as a misdemeanor conviction, even though the direct and indirect penalties are vastly different.

If State College Borough were to decriminalize marijuana, it will only be of benefit to students fearful of having something on their record, if the police and judges are willing to allow a marijuana violation to be dismissed upon completion of community service or a drug education class. Otherwise, Penn State students are better off under the current system, where they can have marijuana-related charges dismissed and expunged following completion of the ARD program. That being said, repeat offenders would be better off with decriminalization, as ARD is generally reserved for first time offenders.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. He has handles countless misdemeanor and felony level marijuana cases over the years, and he is the only State College lawyer on the NORML Legal Committee.

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