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Politics & Government

Public Overwhelmingly In Support Of Marijuana Decriminalization

Every seat in the gallery of City Council chambers was filled during Tuesday’s public hearing on a proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Students, grandparents, veterans, cancer patients, activists and young professionals were among those who spoke in favor of the bill. 

Many shared their personal experiences with cannabis and the criminal justice system. No one spoke against the bill.

Philip Franceschelli said marijuana helped him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts caused by a sexual injury in college.

He currently makes $7.50/hour delivering pizza while trying to pay off $50,000 in college debt and supporting his girlfriend, who was recently laid off, and her 2-year-old son. He said a drug possession charge from 2006 has prevented him from using his biochemistry degree to earn more money.

“(At) a recent interview I went on for a job that only paid $10/hour, (they) asked me about that charge two separate times by two separate interviewers,” Franceschelli said. “It happened almost a decade ago and I had only possessed a little over a gram, which is practically nothing.”

The proposal would make possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana a summary offense rather than a misdemeanor and would levy a fine of $25 for possession and $100 for smoking in public.

Of the approximately 1,000 people arrested for possession annually in Pittsburgh, the vast majority of them have their charges reduced or dismissed, according to Patrick Nightingale, executive director of the local chapter for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

Jesse Wozniak, professor of criminology at West Virginia University says there is a broad consensus among academics that marijuana prohibition does more harm than good.

“A recent study published in Criminology, which is a flagship journal of American criminology, by the pre-eminent researcher Christopher Uggen, found that even a low level arrest in which there is no conviction has a significantly negative effect on future employability, on future earning and life chances,” he said.

That study looked at charges for disorderly conduct, not possession of a controlled substance, but Wozniak said the conclusions apply.

According to students from Carnegie Mellon University, who completed a report about the effects of marijuana decriminalization as part of their capstone course in ethics, history and public policy, the move would save the city an estimated $1 million annually.

City Councilman Daniel Lavelle introduced the bill after being approached by Aggie Brose, deputy director of the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation, who said too many young people in Pittsburgh are being caught up in the criminal justice system for marijuana possession.

“Saving taxpayer money, letting kids have a future, letting them have value to life and not being passed by, sitting on the corners being homeless in my neighborhood,” she said. “The bottom line is, I kept thinking, ‘I hope this is the right thing to do.’ Today you’ve convinced me, it’s more than the right thing to do.”

It appears a majority of City Council is also convinced; Lavelle along with Councilmen Daniel Gilman, Corey O’Connor and Bruce Kraus and Councilwomen Deb Gross and Natalia Rudiak say they will support the bill. Lavelle said Councilman Ricky Burgess will also support, while Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said she is still on the fence but is leaning toward a yes vote. Lavelle said Councilwoman Darlene Harris has indicated she will not support the measure.

Council will take a preliminary vote at their committee meeting Wednesday; a final vote will likely take place next week.