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Pa. lawmakers try again to lower penalties for marijuana possession

Marijuana plants growing in a California facility.
Jeff Chiu
Marijuana plants growing in a California facility.

Lawmakers are reintroducing legislation to lower penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Introduced by Sens. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, and Camera Bartolotta, R-Greene, the legislation would make possession of less than 30 grams, around one ounce, a summary offense.

Right now, the penalty for possessing that amount is a misdemeanor offense.

That would make it similar to a parking or traffic ticket, Street said.

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Marijuana-related crimes punish Black and Brown people disproportionately more than White people, Street said.

Drexel University found possession arrests were around four times higher among Black people than White people between 2013 and 2021.

“If we’re not going to enforce it equally, we shouldn’t, we don’t really need to have criminal laws,” he said.

Bartolotta is a co-chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. She said she wants to reform Pennsylvania’s system.

“Our criminal justice system in Pennsylvania is very, very antiquated and it’s keeping people behind bars for incredibly long amounts of time,” she said. “They keep going back for technical violations on probation when it’s not even a crime.”

Additionally, Bartolotta has a separate bill removing DUI penalties if the driver has a medical marijuana card but is not impaired to drive at the time of the ticket.

“We have a loophole in our law for medical cannabis and people have been getting DUIs simply by having a medical cannabis card and a cop knowing that they are legally allowed to use it because any trace of any kind of cannabis even if it was used 30 days ago could lead to a DUI and has in the past,” she said.

This is not the first time the two senators have introduced the possession legislation, but Street said he thinks this time will be different.

“I think that there’s broad-based support from the population of the public from both parties,” he said. “And ultimately the legislature is supposed to reflect the will of the people.”

The Pew Research Center found a majority of Americans from both parties support full legalization.

However, Street and Bartolotta say this is not legalization.

While Street has introduced legislation making adult-use cannabis legal and sees lowering the penalties of possession as a step towards it, Bartolotta said she is not there at the moment.

“It [small marijuana offenses] just seems to be clogging up our justice system and being an excessive punishment for something that’s legal in other states,” she said. “And we need to do better for our taxpayers, for the community.”