What Does Pennsylvania’s Move to Decreased Marijuana Penalties Mean to You?
In the wake of a push by several Pennsylvania cities to decrease penalties for marijuana possession, some Pennsylvania legislators want to make that change official on a statewide basis. If a house bill introduced this week moves forward, the penalty for first-time marijuana possession may be decreased to a simple fine. However, the impact of such a change on individual situations may vary, and it is important not to confuse decreased penalties with legalization. As long as marijuana remains criminalized, there are some serious pitfalls that are not eliminated by a reduced penalty for first-time possession.
From Misdemeanor to Summary Offense
Under current Pennsylvania law, the first-time possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana is a misdemeanor offense. Conviction can carry up to 30 days in jail, a $500 fine, and a mandatory six-month driver’s license suspension. Conviction of a misdemeanor also has a serious impact on a person’s criminal history, leaving a permanent record of conviction that will be publicly available for a minimum of 10 years.
However, a bill introduced this week in the Pennsylvania legislature, House Bill 93, would move to lessen those penalties. If this bill were passed into law, a conviction for a first or second offense of possessing less than 30 grams of marijuana would be considered a summary offense. Punishment would be capped at a $300 fine, and a driver’s license suspension would not apply until after the third offense. This follows a move by many cities to charge first-time marijuana offenders with only local ordinance summary violations, as well as the relatively recent legalization of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania.
Decreased Penalties is Not the Same as Legalization
While this may by a sign of Pennsylvania’s move toward joining other states in relaxing marijuana laws, it is wise to not assume that passage of this bill would make marijuana “legal” in Pennsylvania. First, even a summary offense is a criminal offense, and a conviction for any summary offense remains in the public record for a minimum of five years. Even a summary conviction for a minor offense can affect employment, housing, professional licensing, immigration status, probation or parole status, and a host of other areas. Even for a summary offense, the old adage of “just pay the fine and move on” does not apply in a world where digital records can follow a person anywhere.
Second, other laws involving use, possession, or being under the influence of marijuana would be unaffected by this change. Driving under the influence of marijuana would still be a misdemeanor, for which even a first offense carries mandatory jail time. Delivery, manufacture (growing) or possession with intent to deliver marijuana would remain a felony offense, carrying serious and lasting consequences.
Even the possession of marijuana paraphernalia, a term that has been interpreted so broadly as to include the bag that marijuana is stored in, would remain a misdemeanor offense. As marijuana would remain a Schedule I controlled substance, the mere presence or odor of marijuana could still provide more than sufficient justification for law enforcement to conduct searches or make arrests in certain situations. Additionally, this law does not propose to be retroactive, meaning that those previously convicted, or already facing charges for prior marijuana-related offenses would find no relief in the changed law.
Use or Possession Remains a Real Criminal Offense
Lastly, it is important to note that a change in marijuana law would have no impact on Federal law, which still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance having no accepted medical or recreational use. Even total legalization of marijuana under Pennsylvania law would not change the Federal prohibition, and the Federal penalties for certain marijuana offenses are severe.
It remains to be seen if Pennsylvania will follow the national trend toward relaxed marijuana laws. However, the status quo remains that the use or possession of marijuana is still treated as a real criminal offense in Pennsylvania, aggressively enforced and prosecuted. If you or a loved one faces a charge or investigation related to marijuana, even under the “reduced” penalties put in place in certain cities, it is important to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney before doing anything. Do not make the mistake of confusing “decreased” penalties with no penalty at all.
An Article By Criminal Defense Attorney