Just 15 months after Philadelphia decriminalized marijuana, Pittsburgh is doing so as well. The effects of decriminalization on incarceration and public order was an 80 percent decline in marijuana arrests from 4,000 to just under 1,000.
In order for Pittsburghers to truly understand what that will mean for those who choose to take advantage of the slackening of enforcement, the Alliance for Police Accountability (APA) held a forum on Jan. 6 at the Kingsley Center in which Attorney Patrick Nightingale, City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle and Zone 5 Commander Jason Lando educated those in attendance on what rights a citizen with marijuana on their person will have and what rights law enforcement will retain and have the right to enforce.
Ayodeji Young, outreach specialist at the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh, began by explaining why this was so important to himself and the APA.
“The marijuana thing is an easy way to get pulled over and if kids knew they didn’t have to take off running because they had a bag of weed in their pocket, it would stop a lot of the extra things that happen on the back end of that.”
He said, alluding to the high frequency of unarmed Black males who get shot or charged with a felony for trying to elude capture.
Brandi Fisher, head of the APA, said it is because “Number one there is a gross disparity in enforcement and the data shows that. Black men are number one for arrests in the city of Pittsburgh and most of that is for marijuana. Black men are arrested six times more than anyone else in the city of Pittsburgh.”
She said most people are aware that if a person is in the system, it becomes exponentially harder to get a job. Fisher insists there are further repercussions for others beyond just the accused. There is a hidden legal system ripple effect that people only see once they go through it.
“Often times, if someone is in a housing complex and they are arrested, the woman who lives in that housing project is kicked out because there was a drug bust on her property. Her children are then displaced from their home and so this has a ripple effect for the lives of everyday people,” she said.
The Home Rule Charter allows Pittsburgh to enact legislation that is not in conflict with state law. There is a clear delineation between legal, decriminalized and illegal. Legal means no repercussions will come about for any action involving said product. The main difference between decriminalized and illegal for the average citizen is a change in outcomes between forfeiture and a civil fine, versus being put into the criminal justice system.
There will be a $25 fine for having it on your person. A $100 fine if one is smoking it or has it in public view. This exemption is also only in place for 30 grams or less.
Afterwards, a long discussion involving gray areas in the law ensued as many wanted to know just how lax the rules would be and how they would know to feel safe knowing that all officers would obey the new changes. One attendee asked, “If you can’t force officers to do this how can you make sure that the police will do it?” Nightingale ensured him they talked to McLay, Lando and the district attorney so they are all on the same page.
Lando added, “The last thing we want to do with all we deal with is to send people to jail for a little weed and spend 3 hours of paper work on it.” But followed that comment by adding, “I would say 15–20 percent of the time we pull a car over because it smells like weed and the car is stolen, or there is a stolen gun in the car so we still need the ability to do our job.”
More questions persisted. Questions such as, if one has 30 grams in 30 bags could it be a charge of intent to deliver and mean a trip to jail? Lando said, “A trip to jail will be weighed by a number of factors such as how much money is on the person, how compliant and honest are they being with the officer, if the person’s cell phone is going crazy during the stop.”
“If you are on probation and caught will you be prosecuted?” Lando answered in the affirmative. In essence, the spirit of his answers were if you don’t make it too tough on the officers during the stop they won’t make it too tough on you, unless you show all of the tell-tale signs of being a dealer or already in violation of probation.
The people liking the slack they felt the police seemed willing to show emboldened one man to ask, “If I had some really expensive weed could I still keep some? Lando said it is his decision that the weed would be confiscated and hopefully be destroyed on site.
Fisher, unhappy with the direction and nature the questions were beginning to take, chimed in with a message fitting for anyone who should get caught hereafter. “Just be happy you aren’t going to jail.”
(J.L. Martello also contributed to this article.)
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