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In The State House, Baby Steps Toward Lower Marijuana Penalties

Ted S. Warren

A measure that would reduce penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana has passed out of a House committee. 

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 to 5.

Sponsor Barry Jozwiak, a Berks County Republican, is banking on even better results when he brings it back next session.

“It’s a struggle, quite frankly,” he said. “People have to be explained 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. It also requires driver’s license suspension and prosecution by a district attorney.

Jozwiak’s bill would turn it into 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.

It does have detractors, like Jerry Knowles—also a Berks Republican. In committee debate, he told Jozwiak the bill constituted “watering down the law. “

Jozwiak doesn’t see it that way, however.  

He argued, the bill is fundamentally 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 like the Fraternal Order of Police and State Troopers Association have said they support the bill.

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