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Marijuana decriminalization: How York City compares to other municipalities

The handful of other Pennsylvania municipalities that have decriminalized marijuana possession experienced a learning curve similar to that seen in York City as officers get accustomed to the new ordinance.

York City last year became the fifth municipality in the state to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a summary offense, akin to a traffic ticket.

Yet in the first six months, officers issued only one citation while continuing to file criminal charges — 91 during the same time period — for the offense.

Marijuana decriminalization graphic. Photo Illustration by John A. Pavoncello

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The other municipalities with similar ordinances reported similar experiences. 

Interim York City Police Chief Troy Bankert said the officers needed training and that if someone was caught with a small amount of marijuana while committing other crimes, that person still would be charged with possession instead of cited.

Interim Police Chief Troy Bankert gives a brief update on two shootings that happened in York City, Tuesday, during a press conference, Wednesday, April 25, 2018. John A. Pavoncello photo

While the municipalities that preceded York City didn't have exactly the same problems, officers in some of those cities also weren't using the ordinance right away.

Harrisburg: The state capital passed its ordinance in July 2016, and Harrisburg Police Capt. Gabriel Olivera said there haven't been any major problems — but he did note a similarity between Harrisburg and York City.

“We have the same issue — if the individual has other charges, they will be charged with the misdemeanor," he said.

Olivera said at first officers weren't using the ordinance much, but that has since changed. He said once officers got used to using it, they started filing the citation more. He also said proactive policing has led officers to use it more.

Another issue York City Mayor Michael Helfrich mentioned is that the city's new ordinance does not cover drug paraphernalia, meaning if someone is found with a small amount of marijuana and paraphernalia, that person would face criminal charges.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich and Interim Police Chief Troy Bankert hold a press conference on recent shootings, Wednesday, April 25, 2018. John A. Pavoncello photo


In Harrisburg, officers don't have to worry about that.

“We can actually give them two citations — one is for the marijuana and (the other for) paraphernalia," Olivera said.

However, the citations for paraphernalia only cover items if it is clear that they are for a small amount of marijuana usage, the captain said.

Unlike in York City, Harrisburg officers underwent training on how to use the ordinance before they could start issuing the citations, and they trained with the magisterial district judges on how to properly implement it, Olivera said.

State College: State College's ordinance also took effect in the summer of 2016, according to borough Police Lt. Greg Brauser.

Brauser said that like officers in York City and Harrisburg, State College's officers file criminal charges when a defendant incurs other charges alongside marijuana possession. 

"Basically it only applies if it's a standalone charge for a small amount of marijuana for personal use," he said.

State College Police Chief John Gardner said only a few citations were filed within the first few months, until it "caught on" with the department.

"There's a couple officers who use it pretty regularly," he said.

Tom King, the assistant borough manager of public safety, said paraphernalia was amended to the ordinance in February or March 2017, a few months after the ordinance passed.

The addition was made not because it was a problem but because it would still allow officers to use the ordinance, he said.

“It’s very specifically limited to paraphernalia ... to use marijuana," he said.

King, who retired as the department's police chief around the same time the ordinance was passed, said that since the ordinance went into effect officers have filed 30 to 40 citations.

Gardner noted that the ordinance does not apply to marijuana possession at Penn State University. The university campus has its own police department, which does not use the ordinance, according to the school's department of student affairs. It also does not apply to the other municipalities that the department covers, he said.

The idea behind the ordinance in York City was that people wouldn’t be dragged through the criminal justice system for a relatively minor offense and police could focus on more serious crimes. Olivera and Gardner said that idea was the reason behind their cities' respective ordinances.

Philadelphia: Philadelphia's marijuana decriminalization ordinance took effect in October 2014. Philadelphia Police Capt. Sekou Kinebrew said in an email that those found in possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana are cited and must pay a $25 fine, while those found smoking it in public are cited and fined $100 and ordered to perform community service.

He said there have been no issues implementing the change, and the police department's policy was updated to reflect the ordinance. 

Kinebrew said officers are able to apply a violation of the ordinance in tandem with criminal charges, and in that case the offense would be listed as a summary offense.

He also said the legislation has led to a significant decrease in arrests for possession of marijuana.

Pittsburgh had a similar ordinance that took effect in January 2016. Messages left for the public information officer for the Pittsburgh Police Department were not returned.

Background: Kim Bracey, York City's mayor in 2017, signed the ordinance into law in late July that year, and it took effect 30 days later.

The ordinance gives officers the option of issuing summary citations instead of arresting people for possessing or publicly using up to 30 grams of marijuana or 8 grams of hashish.

A first offense for possession carries a $100 fine, a second offense draws a $250 fine and a third offense brings 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.

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

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.

Mayor Helfrich said last month that city officials were going to meet to figure out how to fix the situation with the city's marijuana ordinance.

Bankert said Monday, May 14, that training on the ordinance was ready to go, but the department has been sidetracked since the death of Officer Alex Sable. Sable died May 16 after he suffered a heart attack while training in Baltimore County, Maryland.

Bankert confirmed Tuesday, May 29, that the training will start the last week in May.

— Reach Christopher Dornblaser at cdornblaser@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @YDDornblaser.