York City officials uncertain on pot decriminalization

Sean Philip Cotter
  • York City has not formally considered decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana.
  • Right now, simple possession is a misdemeanor; decriminalization would just make it a citation.
  • In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, simple possession is only a citation with a $25 fine.

If you're caught with 30 grams or less of marijuana in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, you're fined $25.

If police find you with that same amount in any other municipality in Pennsylvania, you can face up to 30 days behind bars, a $500 fine, a driver's license suspension of six months and a criminal mark on your record.

Several York City Council members this week indicated varying levels of support for some sort of decriminalization initiative for marijuana possession. AP photo

Philadelphia's and Pittsburgh's councils have voted over the past two years to decriminalize what state law calls "possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use" — it's still against the law, but it's merely a citation rather than a misdemeanor.

Harrisburg's talking about doing the same. The idea was discussed at that city council's meeting earlier this month before the council ultimately tabled it with the intention of gathering more information before making a decision, The Associated Press reported.

Harrisburg to consider plan to decriminalize marijuana

In York City: And while there have not been discussions yet at York City Council meetings about decriminalization, several city government officials said they are open to the possibility and are watching what is happening in other cities around the state.

Proponents of this type of change nationally have said it would help make the criminal justice system less heavy handed — especially to poorer and minority communities that often are policed more intensely — as well as reducing the burden on court systems nationwide. Opponents cite public health concerns stemming from more people smoking weed, and warn that more people on the road could be under the influence of it.

York City Mayor Kim Bracey said in an email she hasn't spoken to city council about decriminalization, but the administration is watching other cities around the state to see what they are doing. She said she would need to talk to health and legal experts before forming an opinion on decriminalization.

York City Mayor Kim Bracey. Bil Bowden photo

York City Council president Carol Hill-Evans expressed tentative support for it. She said she'd want input from the police department, district attorney and district judges and information from the city solicitor's office on whether it's even possible for the council to pass such a law.

"If we have the authority to do it, then we might consider it," she said.

Jason Sabol, the city's assistant solicitor, said his office hasn't researched the topic yet, though he wouldn't be surprised if they did soon, considering the developments elsewhere in Pennsylvania. But he said it's his understanding the city council could decriminalize simple possession if it so desired.

Hill-Evans said she supports the general ideas behind decriminalization — cutting down on the courts' huge caseload and generally creating a justice system that's less punitive.

Carol Hill-Evans

"Let’s change the rules," she said. "Let’s make it less burdensome."

The Associated Press has reported that Philadelphia police cited 73 percent fewer people in the year following the decriminalization of marijuana in fall 2014 than they arrested for it during the preceding year.

York City Police Chief Wes Kahley did not respond to multiple requests for comment Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Councilman Henry Nixon said he also agrees with the principles behind decriminalization — he has no moral hangup on the issue of people smoking marijuana.

"I generally will say that I feel that … small amounts of marijuana are similar to alcohol, and that’s a legal drug," he said.

But he has a major logistical hangup — he's concerned there's no true equivalent of a blood test or breath test to quantify impairment the way there is with alcohol. so he worries people will drive or go to work while high.

"My concern is how it would affect any kind of dangerous activity at work," he said.

Tests can measure whether a person recently has consumed THC, the ingredient that gets you high, but it can't indicate whether or not the person is currently impaired. If there were a way to test reliably for impairment, he said, he'd not only support decriminalization — he'd want to go all the way.

"I’d love to see it legalized, if we had such a test," Nixon said. "Tax it, sell it, bring it out into the open."

George Geisler Jr. is a retired Newberry Township police officer and drug-recognition expert (DRE). He said the concerns Nixon raised aren't an issue — it's easy for police officers to tell if someone is under the influence.

"Oh, absolutely," he said. "Seeing someone impaired on marijuana is easy as seeing someone impaired on alcohol."

There's no blood test, but field sobriety tests and other ways of checking do just as well, he said. One of the telltale signs of people being stoned is psychophysical impairment — they can't "think and do at the same time" so well, he said. So officers test for that, using "divided-attention tests" to check whether people as instructed can stand on one leg, walk and turn and follow an officer's finger with their eyes. The police also look for bloodshot eyes, discolored tongues and the inability to judge the passage of time.

Scientific basis for laws on marijuana, driving questioned

He said any DRE can make the correct call easily, and officers with the more common Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement — ARIDE — certification can, too. And if companies are concerned about what Nixon worries about, they'll have to train their management much the same, he said.

"They have to teach their folks how to identify a drug-impaired subject," said Geisler, who's now the Pennsylvania DUI Association's director of law-enforcement services for the eastern part of the state.

But the DRE does have some other concerns. For one, he worries about more and more young people smoking marijuana and the possible adverse effects it can have on the youthful brain. And, he said, people underestimate how long marijuana impairs them.

He said a trained tester such as himself can sometimes detect impairment up to 24 hours after the person initially gets high. The duration of impairment is different for everyone; he said the longest he's found in anyone he's tested is 20 hours. But it's normal, for example, for people to still have psychophysical impairment 12 hours later, even though they might not feel at all still stoned, he said.

And because the standards are lower for proving drugged driving than drunken driving, he said, showing that there's some impairment is enough. Which is good, Geisler said — after all, driving is pretty much one giant divided-attention test.

"That requires pretty doggone good psychophysical acuity," Geisler said.

He said he expects more people to drive while high if laws start to loosen regarding weed.

Council vice president Michael Helfrich indicated that something should be done about the issue of marijuana arrests, but that he wasn't sure if it was city government's job to do.

"There is definitely a problem when an arrest for a small amount of marijuana can potentially ruin people’s chances to better themselves and their community," he said. "Something has to change, but I have not decided on what level of government that should happen."

Councilwomen Renee Nelson and Sandy Walker, who's council's liaison to law enforcement, each said she would need to know more about the issue before forming an opinion.

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD. The Associated Press contributed to this report.