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Marijuana Possession No Longer a Misdemeanor in State College

by on August 01, 2016 10:35 PM

Possession of a small amount of marijuana within State College Borough will now be a summary offense, rather than a misdemeanor, following approval of an ordinance by Borough Council on Monday night.

Council voted 5-2 for the ordinance, which treats possession of a small amount of marijuana -- 30 grams or less of marijuana or eight grams or less of hashish -- much like an open container violation. Individuals in possession of or smoking marijuana would be issued a non-traffic citation, rather than receiving a misdemeanor criminal charge. Possession results in a $250 citation and smoking a $350 citation. Parents of individuals under the age of 18 who are cited would be notified.

If a possession charge is made in connection with other misdemeanors or felonies, it cannot be separated out as an ordinance violation and as a matter of law would also be charged as a misdemeanor.

The ordinance goes into effect once signed by Mayor Elizabeth Goreham.

Borough staff had advised council not adopt the ordinance, citing significant enforcement issues. On the University Park campus, possession will continue being enforced as a misdemeanor under state law -- regardless of which municipality the offense occurs in. The state law will continue to apply in College and Harris Townships, where State College Police have jurisdiction, as well as Ferguson and Patton Townships.

“I know there will be some issues with it and the townships have not yet followed our lead on it, but I sincerely hope that they will,” Councilman Jesse Barlow said.

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer expressed concern over the confusion that may result for Penn State students.

“When they’re told State College Borough will not charge them criminally and it’s OK, they may find out the University comes down on them and there goes that scholarship anyway, or that they do not happen to be sitting in State College -- they’re sitting in Ferguson Township… A lot of young men and women ... do not live in this region and don’t have the knowledge of those fine lines whether it’s State College or Ferguson Township or College Township”

Council heard from several Penn State students who spoke in support of the measure, and students spoke in favor it at meetings in May as well after it was first introduced during public comment by student Luis Rolfo in March. They noted that students convicted of drug offenses face loss of federal student aid. 

Police Chief Tom King, however, noted that in 2015, State College had 13 total cases to which the new ordinance would have applied. Of those, only four were Penn State students.

In contrast, King previously said that in 2015, Penn State Police charged 164 individuals for possession of a small amount of marijuana.

Parts of the Penn State campus are located within five municipalities (State College and College, Ferguson, Benner and Patton Townships), but aside from the confusion that would result in charging possession on one part of campus differently from another, the university cited other reasons for continuing to enforce state and federal law.

A letter from Michael DiRaimo, Penn State Vice President for Government and Community Relations, to the borough explained that as a university Penn State is required to adhere to federal law, and as a federal contractor it “is required to implement a drug-free workplace program that prohibits the possession of controlled substances, including marijuana, on property owned, leased, or controlled by the university.”

DiRaimo also stated that Penn State must remain in compliance with the Drug-Free Schools and Community Act requiring any institution receiving federal financial aid to have a program to prevent possession of drugs by students and employees.

“Enforcement of any local ordinance that is not in complete alignment with these requirements places the university at risk of losing federal research funding and student financial aid,” DiRaimo wrote.

Councilman Evan Myers said he hoped Penn State would find a way to support the measure.

“We need to serve as an example,” Myers said before the vote. “Penn State’s position that they can’t do this… I think they should find a way to do this. Penn State needs to get on the side of students and the community, not always figure out reasons why they can’t do things.”

King noted another potential issue, explaining most possession cases possession results in Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD), a program that avoids a record of conviction with the ability to have charges expunged after one year, though at an average cost of $1,199 plus attorneys’ fees. A summary offense, including a summary charge for marijuana possession, remains on an individual’s record and can be found in public dockets as a marijuana offense, for five years.

“One of the concerns I want to watch for is we don’t have someone with a record for five years instead of one,” King said. “It’s an unintended consequence we should be cautious of.”

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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