Marijuana decriminalization boasts broad support, thin opposition

Jason Addy
York Dispatch

After the York City Council passed an ordinance Tuesday to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana, it appears support for the measure is continuing to grow.

Over the course of two public council meetings about the ordinance, more than a dozen people from York City, surrounding municipalities and across the region spoke out passionately in support of reducing the penalties for possessing and using marijuana and hashish.

More:York City Council passes marijuana decriminalization

Rationale ranged from personal and civil liberties to self-medicating for health benefits to giving people a chance to learn from their mistakes without suffering from them.

State Rep. Carol Hill-Evans D- York City, Thursday, July 20, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

But in those same meetings, not a single person registered their opposition to the ordinance, which will give York City Police officers the discretion to fine people for violations instead of arresting them.

In fact, the only public statements of criticism to the decriminalization ordinance came from supporters pushing for full legalization of marijuana.

More:York City Council expected to reduce marijuana penalties

Under the ordinance, first-possession offenses will prompt a $100 fine, second offenses will draw a $250 fine and third offenses will bring a $500 fine.

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.

‘Long time coming’: On Thursday, supporters applauded the council for passing the measure and spoke about how the ordinance will help residents across the city, but opponents of decriminalization were much harder to find.

Sitting down at Penn Park after a run, Jonathan Roberts at first said he was surprised to hear the York City Council had passed marijuana decriminalization. But after a short pause, Roberts said the measure “was a long time coming.”

Roberts, 46, said he lives in Baltimore but is in the process of moving to York City with his three children, ages 13, 15 and 19.

Jonathan Roberts, who lives in Baltimore and works in York City, Thursday, July 20, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

Though he doesn’t believe his children would ever violate the ordinance, Roberts said it makes more sense for parents to discipline their children for a small mistake, such as getting caught smoking a joint, rather than to leave those decisions up to the criminal justice system.

More:Residents voice support for proposed marijuana ordinance in York City

“Nobody wants to have to deal with the judicial system for something like that,” Roberts said. “As a parent, I’d like to believe I can actually make a difference with my child.”

Brandy Barnes, 25, of York City, said she supports decriminalization because she has seen firsthand the medical benefits of marijuana. 

Barnes said her husband uses marijuana to manage symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in the armed forces.

There are likely many more in the city who self-medicate, Barnes said, adding that she believes they’d all rather pay hundreds in fines than risk a stint in jail.

‘Still illegal’: State Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, who served as the York City Council president until her election in November, said she believes the council is “moving in the right direction” by decriminalizing marijuana.

Hill-Evans said she didn’t expect the council to approve decriminalization so soon after she departed, though she said she’s not surprised, given the wave of cities passing similar ordinances in recent months.

Despite her support for the ordinance, Hill-Evans said she hopes city officials engage in an open dialogue with residents to stress to them that having and using marijuana is still illegal.

More:West York council rejects marijuana decriminalization

Some York City Council members had initial reservations about the board’s authority to pass an ordinance decriminalizing marijuana when the state has taken no action on it, but Hill-Evans said the council was right to take the lead.

Efforts in the state Legislature have been focused squarely on the implementation of Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana system, Hill-Evans said, but she hopes officials can work with those who have simple-possession charges and convictions to expunge their criminal records. 

Joel Duttera, owner of Lizzie Jo's candy store in Central Market, Thursday, July 20, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

Speaking from behind the counter at his Lizzie Jo’s candy shop in Central Market, lifelong York City resident Joel Duttera said he fully supports marijuana decriminalization in the city because simple possession charges tie up resources at county court and prison.

The ordinance will likely benefit the city’s under-30 crowd the most, with young residents dodging misdemeanor charges that could hamper future educational and employment opportunities, Duttera said.

“It’s mean and cruel to give them a criminal record,” Duttera said, sarcastically asking why jaywalkers aren’t arrested.