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Legal issues hamper Pittsburgh's marijuana decriminalization ordinance

| Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, 6:51 p.m.

Pittsburgh's ordinance decriminalizing marijuana possession is on hold two months after it passed because city lawyers are seeking a way to impose a civil penalty even though state law mandates a misdemeanor charge.

Under the bill City Council passed and Mayor Bill Peduto signed in December, police have a choice to charge a suspect under existing state law or to issue a civil citation under the ordinance.

Under the second option, possession of 30 grams or less would be subject to a $25 fine. Those caught smoking marijuana in public could be fined $100.

But the city can't file the citation with the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, President Judge Jeffrey Manning said. Manning said the court is bound by state law.

“Legally reducing marijuana possession to (a civil penalty) can only be done by the (state) Legislature,” Manning said. “It doesn't change the fact that they can do it. They can do it unless someone challenges them.”

Marijuana possession cases are expensive to prosecute and tie up court system resources, Manning said.

“We're as happy to get rid of junk cases as anybody else, perhaps more so,” he said.

Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay's office has instructed officers to continue filing misdemeanor charges against marijuana violators until the situation is resolved, according to the police union.

“Nothing has changed at this point,” said Detective Jim Glick, vice president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1.

City Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez Ridge said her office is seeking a legal remedy.

“We're trying to figure out the methodology,” she said.

City police and county prosecutors for years often have agreed to reduce marijuana possession charges to a summary offense, which carries a fine of up to $300, plus court costs. Officers have said they frequently let violators go with a warning.

“What they're talking about and what this legislation is doing is already being done and has been done in this court system for the last 15 years or more,” Manning said.

Proponents of the city ordinance contend that a criminal record for possession has prevented offenders from getting jobs years after the original violation.

Two city councilwomen — Darlene Harris of Spring Hill and Theresa Kail Smith of Westwood — voted against it, saying council lacked the authority to make the change.

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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