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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

Marijuana Decriminalization Could Come to Harrisburg

by | Feb 9, 2016 | Marijuana

A marijuana decriminalization bill is expected to be introduced this week at the Harrisburg City Counsel legislative session. The bill would allow police to charge possession of a small amount of marijuana as a local ordinance summary offense with a $100 fine for a first offense and $200 fine for a second offense. Anyone unlucky enough to be caught a third time would be charged with the usual ungraded misdemeanor under the Pennsylvania Drug Device and Cosmetic Act. A “small amount” of marijuana in Pennsylvania is defined as less than 30 grams for personal use.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse has publicly endorsed the proposed legislation, noting that it will allow for more efficient use of police resources and spare low level offenders from the damaging effects of a criminal record. Yet he did not want to sound like he was condoning marijuana use, telling, “We’re not decriminalizing it. We’re not pro-drug use, but we are simply aware of the benefits of reducing it to a summary offense.”


Despite Papenfuse’s denial that the bill would decriminalize cannabis, decriminalization is precisely what this bill would do. Papenfuse should have said “We are not going to legalize it.” Decriminalization involves reducing penalties and collateral consequences, while something remains illegal. A person convicted with possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana under Pennsylvania law faces up to 30 days in jail, a fine of up to $500, a mandatory six month driver’s license suspension and disqualification from federally subsidized student loans. He or she will also be fingerprinted and photographed and have a criminal record in the FBI and Pennsylvania State Police data bases. By contrast, the proposed local ordinance violation would carry no jail time, no driver’s license suspension, have no effect on student loans and not show up on an FBI or State Police background check.

It should be noted, however, that a violator of the local marijuana ordinance would still have a record on the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts website. Thus, private companies which perform background checks for a small fee will still pull up local ordinance violations for possession of a small amount of marijuana, just like they pull up other summary offenses like underage drinking, public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

It should also be noted that this proposed legislation does not address drug paraphernalia, which includes things like bowls, bongs, vapes, rolling papers and even plastic bags used to hold cannabis. Small amount of marijuana charges are almost always accompanied by drug paraphernalia charges, and ironically the penalty for possessing drug paraphernalia is greater than the penalty for possessing a small amount of marijuana. The maximum penalty for drug paraphernalia in Pennsylvania is six to 12 months incarceration and a $2,500 fine. Presumably, Harrisburg Police will be expected to use sound judgment and just charge the local ordinance when someone is caught with paraphernalia and a small amount of cannabis.

Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, Pennsylvania. He has extensive experience handling marijuana cases.

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