Pubdate: Sun, 20 Mar 2016
Source: Citizens' Voice, The (Wilkes-Barre, PA)
Copyright: 2016 The Citizens' Voice
Author: Jacob Seibel


Proponents Say Potential Ordinance Would Refocus Police Resources

WILKES-BARRE - Passage of an ordinance downgrading the offense of 
possession of drug paraphernalia has sparked serious discussion among 
city officials - on marijuana decriminalization.

Marijuana decriminalization in Wilkes-Barre is largely supported 
among top city officials and legislators, with only one of five city 
council members on the "definitely not" end of the scale.

Proponents say decriminalizing possession of small amounts would help 
refocus police resources on fighting violent and serious drug crimes, 
alleviate pressure on the state court system and prevent creating or 
worsening criminal records for low-level offenders.

"I think marijuana is a lesser evil than alcohol, and alcohol is 
legal," Mayor Tony George said. "If somebody made alcohol today a 
drug, it would be a Schedule I."

A great deal of governmental cooperation is needed to implement and 
enforce decriminalization ordinances, which generally consider a 
small amount of marijuana to be under 30 grams, enough to roll a 
handful of joints.

As former city police chief, George said he sees the value in such an 
ordinance for Wilkes-Barre, particularly for protecting youth from 
acquiring damaging criminal records and for putting the city's police 
budget of $11.8 million to better use.

While George said he wouldn't stand in the way of enforcement, he 
wants to leave the responsibility of enacting the ordinance solely 
with council.

Council would need a majority vote to pass the ordinance and the city 
police department has to be willing to implement it.

Mike Belusko is the lone council member against marijuana 
decriminalization - not because he believes marijuana is a dangerous 
drug, but because it is still an illegal drug.

"Any amount of marijuana would definitely not be acceptable in my 
eyes," he said, "and I would not vote for an ordinance that has that 
in there - because I believe any amount is enough to be considered 
either a misdemeanor or a felony." Marijuana is in a category with 
the most dangerous drugs. The category includes substances that the 
federal government defines as having no accepted medical use and a 
high potential for abuse and dependence - higher potential than 
oxycodone, methamphetamine and crack and powder cocaine.

In the past two decades, Luzerne County has become inundated with 
violence and overdoses from opiates and other hard drugs, not pot. 
For that reason, arresting people for a few grams of weed "just 
doesn't seem logical at this point," said Wilkes-Barre City 
Councilwoman Beth Gilbert.

"We need to step out of our comfort zone. We need to look at how 
other cities are progressing, and this is one way that cities have 
been progressing, decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana," she 
said. "There is an old-school mentality here and I think, as elected 
officials, we need to look beyond that."

Police Chief Marcella Lendacky said she pitched the paraphernalia 
ordinance idea to the mayor as a way to boost city coffers with money 
collected through citations and savings from no longer prosecuting 
misdemeanor offenses. Fines for misdemeanor and felony crimes go 
largely to the state, whereas fines for summary citations go to the city.

Council on March 10 unanimously passed the paraphernalia ordinance, 
which is modeled after Hazleton's 1998 law, downgrading possession 
from a misdemeanor to a summary offense at the discretion of the 
arresting officer.

Lendacky said she had never considered marijuana decriminalization 
until a council meeting last month when a resident presented 
Philadelphia's bill for possessing and smoking small amounts of 
marijuana and urged the city to pass a similar law

he idea caught her attention and was something she wanted the city to review.

Council Chairman Bill Barrett said he asked John Curham, commander of 
operations for the police department, to touch base with other top 
officers to see where the overall department stood. Ultimately, 
officers have the discretion to enforce decriminalization laws. 
Factors that police consider include the criminal background of an 
offender and whether the person is going to be facing more serious charges.

In the days after the paraphernalia ordinance was publicized in the 
media, the chief's initial support was waning because of negative 
online feedback on decriminalization. She said she was wondering 
whether the public perception of Wilkes-Barre would be, "So what are 
they going to allow next?"

"I don't know if we're ready for it," she said. "Are we ready to say 
that so much of this is OK? I don't know if our area is ready for that."

Chris Goldstein, former cochair of marijuana law reform group Philly 
NORML, said some people had worried that decriminalization in 
Philadelphia was going to flood the streets with people smoking pot.

"That hasn't been the case," he said.

Right now, Goldstein said, law enforcement has two choices: arrest 
people or let them go. While the idea of police letting offenders go 
isn't unheard of, the ordinance gives real discretion, he said.

"Rather than taking power away from a police officer," he said. "A 
'decrim' ordinance gives power to the officer, to be able to deal 
with a situation in a way that doesn't permanently affect an 
individual with a permanent record."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom