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Pot policy debate unlikely to end soon in Pennsylvania, other states

| Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, 6:36 p.m.
Pittsburgh attorney Patrick Nightingale helped to form Cannabis Legal Solutions.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Pittsburgh attorney Patrick Nightingale helped to form Cannabis Legal Solutions.
State Senator Daylin Leach speaks about the decriminalization of marijuana during a PGH NORML event in the Strip District Thursday, Nov. 18, 2014.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
State Senator Daylin Leach speaks about the decriminalization of marijuana during a PGH NORML event in the Strip District Thursday, Nov. 18, 2014.
State Senator Daylin Leach, left, Heather Shuker of Valencia and Theresa Nightingale participate in a PGH NORML event in the Strip District Thursday, Nov. 18, 2014. Shuker's 11-year-old daughter Hannah Pallas suffers seizures and she is advocating for medical marijuana legalization.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
State Senator Daylin Leach, left, Heather Shuker of Valencia and Theresa Nightingale participate in a PGH NORML event in the Strip District Thursday, Nov. 18, 2014. Shuker's 11-year-old daughter Hannah Pallas suffers seizures and she is advocating for medical marijuana legalization.

Jason Cole has encountered marijuana laws in Washington, Michigan and Pennsylvania, each time from a different point of view: as a patient, a teacher and then as a defendant.

Cole obtained marijuana legally in Washington state with a prescription to treat a seizure disorder five years ago. A soil scientist, he spent weekends driving from Pennsylvania to Michigan to teach medical cannabis users to grow plants.

Police with a search warrant found 7 grams of marijuana in his Westmoreland County home in February 2012.

“I don't understand how I could drive 200 miles away, and it's legal, and I can't do it here,” said Cole, 43, of Vandergrift, who works with the pro-legalization Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

But critics of decriminalization say changing public perception of the drug could encourage increased use. Prosecutors, who oppose decriminalization in Pennsylvania, point out that most small-possession cases don't result in jail time.

“The overwhelming majority” are reduced to a summary disorderly conduct and settled at the magistrate level, said Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

“It's not one-size-fits-all,” Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said about application of the law.

Cole received a year of house arrest and a year of probation. His criminal record makes it difficult to find a job, he said.

Some cities are easing penalties for getting caught with small quantities of marijuana. Philadelphia in October decriminalized possession, making it punishable by a citation and $25 fine. New York City will give those caught with up to 25 grams a court summons and fine.

Pittsburgh isn't likely to follow suit anytime soon. Mayor Bill Peduto has said he supports legalizing marijuana for medical purposes but that he has other public safety priorities than pushing for relaxed penalties for possession.

Thousands of arrests

In Pennsylvania, police made an average of 17,700 marijuana arrests a year, according to five years of Pennsylvania State Police data.

Juvenile arrests total about 3,000 a year.

In the seven-county Pittsburgh metro area, police arrested 3,389 adults for possession in 2013, a five-year high.

Although federally classified alongside heroin as a Schedule I drug, marijuana is legalized for medical purposes in about 20 states. Four states in two years — Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska — have legalized the substance outright.

“If they perceive it not to be harmful, use goes up,” said Arthur T. Dean, CEO and chairman of Virginia-based prevention network Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. “As you do more decriminalization activities, or you legalize, or you create what they're calling medical marijuana, you're normalizing the use of dangerous substances.”

Chris Goldstein, co-chair of NORML's Philadelphia chapter, said marijuana users might be more likely to talk to police about serious crimes under decriminalization.

“The whole point of passing these laws is to address the reality of today, which is the tens of thousands of consumers using it underground already,” Goldstein said.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat and legalization advocate, hopes legalization for medical purposes happens in Pennsylvania next year, a policy Gov.-elect Tom Wolf supported when campaigning.

“We're going to reach a tipping point where prohibition is no longer sustainable,” Leach said.

Lasting influence

Patrick Nightingale, executive director of Pittsburgh NORML and a criminal defense attorney, said some punishments for marijuana appear akin to “killing a bee with a shotgun.”

He suggests starting with a civil fine.

“Eliminate the lawyers, eliminate the court proceeding, eliminate the fingerprints, eliminate the expungement process,” he said. “Why not just cut to the chase?”

State Rep. Ed Gainey, D-East Liberty, said he supports decriminalization to reduce the number of nonviolent felony arrests. Offenders often run into issues securing homes, jobs or loans, he said.

A 2012 survey from the Society of Human Resource Management found 69 percent of employers conduct criminal background checks. Seventy-four percent said a nonviolent felony conviction is a “very influential” factor in making hiring decisions.

In a poll from 2011, the organization found more than half of employers conduct drug tests on job candidates.

“Once you've served your time and you're a nonviolent offender, why can't you go back to having the same opportunity that everybody in life has?” Gainey said.

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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