Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday introduced a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, defined as 30 grams, or about an ounce.
Council won’t discuss the proposal until next week at the earliest, but several members registered tepid support of the bill, including Councilman Ricky Burgess, who said some of the East End communities he represents have been destroyed by drug use and the United States’ failed drug war alike. He said he supports rehabilitation for drug users, not jail.
“I do not in any way, at any time (want) for anyone to misunderstand my support of this (as condoning) in any way the sale and the consumption of illegal drugs,” he said. “I do not support in any way the smoking of marijuana.”
Council President Bruce Kraus was also cautious in his support, in part because of his own personal struggles with substance abuse, he said.
“I am an addict. I am a recovering alcoholic,” he said. “I took my last drink 27 years ago on July 9, 1988. I don’t enter this conversation casually, and I’ll be quite honest that when first presented with it, I believed I would not be in favor or supportive.”
Councilman Dan Gilman was more enthusiastic in his support of the legislation, saying that though he had not had a chance to read the bill in full, he believes the measure is, in principle, a step in the right direction.
“(We are) trying to restore the ability of people to live productive lives, where poor decision-making or small amount of social marijuana use in their teenage years does not destroy the rest of the opportunity to have a job, to have a family, to be educated,” he said.
The bill as written would reduce marijuana violations from a criminal offense to a summary offense, imposing fines of $25 for possession of marijuana and $100 for smoking marijuana in a public space.
Patrick Nightingale, executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, said the “best case scenario” is the full legalization, taxation and regulation of marijuana long-since passed in Washington, Colorado and Oregon.
But he said it’s been “almost impossible” to move medical marijuana legislation forward in Harrisburg and, inspired by a decriminalization ordinance passed in Philadelphia last year, Pittsburgh NORML decided to focus on reform of local laws.
With the support and participation of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, NORML met with Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala and members of council to advocate for the legislation.
According to a letter from Zappala to Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay, the DA’s office typically diverts, reduces or withdraws the charge for possession of a small amount of marijuana, sometimes with the requirement of community service. Zappala wrote that Philadelphia’s ordinance “has reduced to the 4,000 arrests annually for this offense by 73 percent.”
According to Pittsburgh’s legislation, approximately 1,000 individuals are charged with possessing marijuana for personal use each year. The bill also states that racial minorities “are charged with minor possessory offenses five times more often than their white colleagues despite similar rates of usage.”
Nightingale said it doesn’t make sense to send people to court and use valuable public safety resources when charges are routinely reduced or dismissed.
“Why are we bringing people into the criminal justice system unnecessarily if we are going to reduce their charge … anyway?” he said. “Between the success in Philadelphia, the reality of what we’re already doing here in Pittsburgh and the support of Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, it was the right time to move forward with this.”
Nightingale said while his group supports the full legalization of cannabis, he doesn’t want the public to misunderstand that position as being in favor of the abuse of controlled substances or the reckless use of marijuana.
“We most certainly do not want to send the message that because we decriminalized small amounts of marijuana in Pittsburgh that one can get behind the wheel of an automobile … while under the influence of cannabis,” he said. “However, there also has to be some common sense here. Do we want people drinking? No, drinking is bad for you. Do we throw people in jail because they tailgate at the Steelers game? No, absolutely no.”
Pittsburgh Public Safety Spokesperson Sonya Toler did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who is chair of council's public safety committee, to which the bill has been referred, was unavailable for comment as well.