EDITORIAL: Pot law 'gap' raises questions

York Dispatch
Marijuana decriminalization graphic. Photo Illustration by John A. Pavoncello

When York City Council approved an ordinance last year decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, it was a big deal.

It was not some mundane piece of business to rubberstamp and get the council members home in time for a late supper.

The idea was tossed around for a year before it was discussed seriously during two public meetings last summer.

More than a dozen people spoke in favor of decriminalization and no one registered opposition before the council took the plunge.

The 4-1 vote on July 18, 2017, placed York City among just five Pennsylvania municipalities that issue summary citations — akin to a traffic ticket — for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

More:'A gap in training': One York City marijuana citation in six months

More:York City Council passes marijuana decriminalization

Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, State College and Harrisburg made the switch before York. Erie followed suit in January.

York City interim Police Chief Troy Bankert and York City Council members discuss driving safety while declaring April to be Distracted Driving Awareness Month during a news conference at the York City Police Department in York City, Tuesday, April 17, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

They’ve all joined a small but growing number of states and cities where recreational marijuana use is still illegal, but officials have decided take a lighter touch with offenders.

Proponents of this type of change say it makes the criminal justice system less oppressive — especially to poorer and minority communities that often are policed more intensely — and reduces the burden on court systems.

On Friday, April 20, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, announced he’s introducing legislation to decriminalize marijuana nationwide.

Even John Boehner, the former Republican speaker of the House, who once opposed decriminalization is now a proponent and has joined the board of advisors for a legal marijuana company.

More:York City Council expected to reduce marijuana penalties

As we said, York City Council’s move last summer was significant and garnered widespread attention — but apparently not where it was needed the most.

In the six months after the ordinance passed, the York City Police Department issued a single citation for marijuana possession.


Meanwhile, officers continued to file criminal charges for the offense: 91 during the same time period.

Interim Police Chief Troy Bankert said the disparity was partly the result of “gap in training,” only discovered after York Dispatch reporter Christopher Dornblaser filed a Right-to-Know Law request for the statistic.

Some officers were not trained and were uncomfortable using the ordinance, which allows them to cite people for up to 30 grams, or about an ounce, of marijuana, the chief said.

Bankert said he didn't know why those concerns were not sent up the chain of command, and he declined to speculate.

Now that he’s aware of the problem, the chief said, officers will receive training on the ordinance, likely in May, and the situation will be re-evaluated six months later.

“I think responsible policing is responding to gaps in training and any other problems, and that's what we're doing," he said.

Sure. But that doesn’t explain why the department's top brass was surprised by the “gap” six months after the law took effect. 

It raises questions about the initial training and supervision of officers during the implementation of a significant policy change.

And then, like it or not, there's the question: How seriously did the department take the council’s bold move?