York City Council passes marijuana decriminalization

Jason Addy
York Dispatch

The York City Council approved an ordinance Tuesday night that will reduce penalties for possessing and using small amounts of marijuana.

Passed by a 4-1 vote, the ordinance gives York City Police officers some flexibility in handling first, second and third offenses for possession and use of 30 grams or less of marijuana and 8 grams or less of hashish, a product derived from marijuana.

Chris Goldstein, a self-described marijuana consumer advocate from Philadelphia, shows the York City Council a graph displaying the dropping cost of marijuana arrests in Philadelphia in recent years. Tuesday, July 18, 2017. Jason Addy photo.

Councilwoman Renee Nelson was the lone vote against the ordinance. At a council debate in May, Nelson said she was wary of supporting decriminalization because she does not know the long-term effects or benefits of marijuana use.

The council's vote sparked a mini-celebration from several dozen people who showed up to support the ordinance.

Over the course of two council meetings where the ordinance was discussed extensively, not a single person spoke out against the proposal or decriminalization.

Under the ordinance, officers will be able to treat first, second and third offenses as civil matters and issue citations instead of arresting those found with marijuana or hashish.

First possession offenses will prompt a $100 fine, second offenses will draw a $250 fine and third offenses will bring a $500 fine. 

York City officials uncertain on pot decriminalization

The fines for using marijuana or hashish in public start at $150 for a first offense, with fines rising to $300 for a second offense and $600 for a third offense, according to the new regulation, which establishes Article 718 “Marijuana Possession” of the York City Codified Ordinances.

Decriminalization bandwagon: York City is the fifth municipality in Pennsylvania to pass legislation decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana.

Philadelphia led the way in October 2014 and was the lone municipality with decriminalization on its books for 18 months until Pittsburgh approved a similar measure in April 2016.

In the 15 months since Pittsburgh's passage, York City and two other small cities have jumped on the marijuana-decriminalization bandwagon.

Harrisburg's city council approved a decriminalization ordinance in July 2016, followed by State College in September 2016, before York City joined the group on Tuesday.

Though all five municipalities have approved decriminalization, the range of fines for possession and use vary widely between them.

In the state's two major metropolitan areas, simple-possession fines are set at $25 for each offense.

Harrisburg's ordinance sets fines at $75 for first and second offenses, while further offenses are treated as criminal matters.

State College's ordinance sets a blanket fine of $250 for simple possession and $350 for public use for each offense.

York City's decriminalization ordinance represents a mix of elements in the other municipalities' ordinances, but its rising scale of fines is unique in Pennsylvania.

After three offenses in a five-year span, all further offenses will be treated as criminal infractions under the new ordinance.

A proposed decriminalization ordinance in West York failed by one vote at the beginning of June.

More:West York council rejects marijuana decriminalization

West York Mayor Shawn Mauck, who drafted the proposal, modeled the ordinance on State College's, with a $250 fine for possession and a $350 fine for public use.

Amendments: York City Council President Michael Helfrich wanted to amend the ordinance’s language to cover paraphernalia, but after conversations with city solicitor Jason Sabol, Helfrich said it appeared the city could not pass legislation superseding state law on marijuana paraphernalia.

More:York City Council expected to reduce marijuana penalties

The council did pass an amendment to the bill allowing York County district judges to order community service for any offense regulated under the ordinance, instead of just the first offense as originally indicated.

Council members also removed the nine-hour cap on community service for ordinance violations, leaving it up to district judges to determine the amount of community service on a case-by-case basis.

However, Helfrich said it is general practice for district judges to order one hour of community service for every $10 of the fine.

'Still illegal': After the vote, York City Police Chief Wes Kahley said he had no problems with the ordinance, as it is more "expedient" and efficient for an officer to issue a citation than to arrest someone.

York City Police officers "understand that there's more serious crimes" than someone smoking a joint in public, Kahley said, though he reminded residents and visitors that the ordinance doesn't legalize the possession or use of marijuana in the city.

"It's still illegal," Kahley warned.

Both Kahley and Helfrich said York City Mayor Kim Bracey would decide when the ordinance would take effect.

Bracey did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday about whether she will sign the ordinance or how and when new enforcement measures will be implemented.