A bill that would decriminalize marijuana in Pennsylvania will move forward after receiving the approval of a key legislative committee on Tuesday. The House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the measure, House Bill 928, by a margin of 14-9. The bill must be approved by the full House and the state Senate and be signed by Gov. Tom Wolf to become law. The governor has said he will sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.
If successful, HB 928 would decriminalize possession of less than 30 grams, or about one ounce, of cannabis. Currently, possession of marijuana is a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500, up to 30 days in jail, and a suspension of driving privileges.
Republican Rep. Barry Jozwiak, the sponsor of the bill, said in a memorandum to his colleagues that under HB 928 the offense would no longer be a crime for first and second-time offenders.
“Under my revised bill, a first or second offense would be a summary offense carrying a maximum $300 fine, with no jail time,” Jozwiak wrote. “A third or subsequent offense would be a misdemeanor of the third degree, with a maximum $1000 fine and no jail. The bill will eliminate a driver’s license suspension for a first or second offense and reduce the suspension for a third offense to six months.”
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Jozwiak is a retired state trooper and the former sheriff of Berks County, Pennsylvania. He said that his bill is a way to free up scarce resources for more serious crime.
“Downgrading this offense from a misdemeanor to a summary offense would have a positive effect on local law enforcement efforts, allowing police and prosecutors to focus their time and resources on more serious offenses,” Jozwiak wrote.
Jozwiak used the area he represents as an example of the effort and expense required to prosecute possession of small amounts of cannabis as a crime.
“Last year, in Berks County, there were 632 cases of possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana,” noted Jozwiak. “These cases cost over $1.5 million dollars to prosecute and brought in only $126,000 in fines. In most cases, each fine was $200 or less. I’m sure this is the same in other counties. This bill will reduce the workload in the court system, save millions of dollars, and allows police to file citations at the local district justice level.
“Officers could now stay on duty, rather than be tied up in court for hours. This is a good economic decision,” he added.
He also assured fellow lawmakers that his bill is not an issue of getting soft on crime.
“As a former law enforcement officer, I strongly believe in cracking down on drug dealers and those who prey on the young or weak with drugs,” Jozwiak. “But those defendants are addressed elsewhere in the Controlled Substances Act. For individuals who merely possess small amounts of marijuana, I believe this adjusted grading makes sense.”
If the bill is passed, it would bring state law in line with major Pennsylvania cities that have already decriminalized cannabis. Philadelphia decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2014 and Pittsburgh did likewise the following year.
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