Pittsburgh initially tried to follow Philadelphia’s lead in making the offense a “civil” offense, but reporting requirements necessitated changing the violation to a summary criminal violation.
Technically, marijuana possession is no longer a misdemeanor in the city of Pittsburgh, but the ordinance has to be enacted and enforced to avoid a direct conflict with Pennsylvania state law.
The new ordinance essentially confirms the long standing practice of reducing a misdemeanor possession charge to a summary criminal offense. For at least two decades the Allegheny County DA’s Office has reduced “small amount” charges to a summary “Disorderly Conduct (DC).
A DC is a non-specific charge that can ultimately be expunged and more importantly, is not a criminal drug charge on the record.
This is significant because drug charges, even a minor possession, can have lasting consequences.
A conviction for marijuana possession, for example, carries with it an automatic 6 month drivers license suspension. That can be devastating for someone who relies on their ability to drive to earn a living.
A drug conviction can adversely affect one’s ability to work in a variety of industries, impact credit scores, and derail child custody arrangements.
Fortunately, Pittsburgh city officials and police have usually worked with defense attorneys and agreed to reduce simple possession charges to a DC, as long as there were no overriding concerns like prior convictions or being belligerent with the arresting officer. And make no mistake; the arresting officer usually had the final say.
What the city has elected to do is basically streamline the process. Since the police officer is traditionally the decision maker as to reducing a possession charge to a DC, let’s allow them to make that call in the field.
This removes a huge burden for the system while still staying within the boundaries of state law. Courts will free up resources for more important cases, public defenders will see a reduction in their case loads (a significant number of possession arrests affect people from low income neighborhoods), and the police will be able to use the discretion they already had in a way that will actually benefit them; not just in resource savings, but in public relations.
The fines range from $25 (simple possession) to $100 (smoking in public). I’m guessing they will also hit people with court costs, which is common with fines, but I have no data on that yet.
Ultimately, the stress people have suffered through in the past– retaining an attorney, finger print visit, even multiple court dates and the worry over the uncertainty of the outcome– is removed from the process. It’s a compassionate and sane approach in dealing with this most benign and inoffensive of intoxicants.
And this cannot be stressed enough: This is all up to the arresting officer, so don’t be an asshole, and chances are good you’ll walk away from an experience which often used to include a night in jail and a criminal record.
Lastly, this is not in effect in Allegheny county. It is Pittsburgh city limits only, and it is still illegal. The Police can still charge someone with possession if they so choose. The vast majority will probably not, but always, when dealing with the police. Be respectful.
Use some discretion and common sense, and the example we set in Pittsburgh can be expanded to surrounding communities, and ultimately lead to full legalization.