York City police chief backs pot decriminalization

Sean Philip Cotter

York City Police Chief Wes Kahley said he supports the idea of making simple possession of marijuana a ticket rather than a misdemeanor crime.

After all, he said, that’s how many officers used to treat it “many moons back” — and it worked better for both the police officers and the people charged.

York City Police Chief Wes Kahley

Kahley, who’s been with the city department since the late 1980s, said officers finding people with a small amount of pot used to give people citations for disorderly conduct rather than charge them with the misdemeanor of possession.

“We were giving people breaks,” he said.

People who are convicted or plead guilty to a misdemeanor count often might not end up being sentenced to time behind bars, but they end up with a mark on their records. The summary offense of disorderly conduct carries a lighter punishment and much less of a blemish on people's records.

But Kahley didn’t think the lesser punishment led to more people smoking weed — there still was the stigma of it being against the law.

“I think the people smoking it were going to be smoking it anyway,” he said.

Decriminalization: Decriminalization of marijuana — making it a summary offense akin to a traffic ticket rather than a misdemeanor crime — has entered the national discussion on the criminal justice system in recent years. 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 reduce 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.

Kahley said decriminalization would free up a significant amount of time for officers. Tickets are much quicker to file, so officers weren’t tied up for hours whenever they busted someone for having a little pot, he said. The chief said he’s firmly against people using any drug, including marijuana, but in the grand scheme of illicit happenings, someone having a joint isn’t the biggest deal the city of York has to face.

“It’s a minor infraction, compared to other things the officers have to be dealing with,” he said.

Court time: Also, when someone's charged with a misdemeanor, the prosecution of that individual goes through the Court of Common Pleas, involving more time and resources for the justice system than dealing with a ticket, he said. And, he said, that isn’t worth the time that could be devoted to going after violent criminals or larger-scale drug dealers.

But, Kahley said, eventually — about 10 years ago, he thinks — someone challenged one of the disorderly conduct citations, and a court ruled that that type of citation didn’t work as a way of punishing people for drugs.

So with that citation off the table for dealing with simple possession, the only charge available was the misdemeanor count.

The chief made it clear he’s not at all in favor of legalization of marijuana. He said that would remove the stigma that keeps marijuana use a little out of the mainstream, which he thinks is a good thing. He said that with legalization more people would smoke, leading to more intoxicated drivers.

York City officials uncertain on pot decriminalization

Neither York City's administration nor the city council has formally discussed the decriminalization of marijuana, though several members of the council and administration have left the door open for it, with Mayor Kim Bracey saying via email recently she would keep an eye on what other Pennsylvania cities do.

Over the past two years, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have made simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana punishable upon first offense with a $25 fine. Earlier this month, Harrisburg's city council and mayor discussed possible plans to do something similar in their city; the council ultimately tabled the discussion for a future meeting so the city government could get more information about it.

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.

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.