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Pittsburgh has small chance of passing a marijuana legalization law like Denver's

| Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005

Holy smoke! Denver residents voted this week to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in their newly re-defined "Mile High City."

National marijuana-rights activists said don't hold your breath when it comes to expecting any initiatives in Western Pennsylvania anytime soon.

The first clue might be that the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has chapters in such far-flung places as Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, Casper, Wyo., and Hermosa, S.D., but nary a one in Pittsburgh.

The free-marijuana movement, at the edge of liberal, or "progressive" politics, has taken hold in predictable places like Seattle and Oakland, Calif., but is practically nonexistent around these parts, NORML executive director Paul Armentano said. Armentano said that he didn't know of any proposals to mellow out laws associated with marijuana use at any time, ever in Pennsylvania, which differed from virtually all neighboring states.

"Quite honestly, Pennsylvania is not a hot-bed of drug policy reform," Armentano said.

Washington, D.C., Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Bruce Mirken said this area was not on his radar, period.

"I don't know," Mirken said of Western Pennsylvania's prospects. "Maybe it's in the water."

Or maybe it's in a more obvious place. Pennsylvania, the entire state, is known for having some of the strictest marijuana laws in the country, Armentano said.

Currently, Keystone-staters face 30 days in jail and a possible $500 fine, if arrested with 30 grams or less of the leafy hallucinogen.

By comparison, the Buckeye state next door has decided to treat first-time minor marijuana offenses as some of the least serious ones under law.

First-time small-time offenders in Ohio face no jail time, are subject to no criminal record, and pay $100 or less (the prosecutorial equivalent of a speeding ticket), for having upward of 100 grams of pot.

Commander Thomas Stangrecki, head of Pittsburgh Police Bureau's Narcotics and Vice Division, said Denver's new measure is "definitely a bad idea." The police commander said he thought more impaired driving would happen in that city because of it.

Most Pittsburghers would never support decriminalization of marijuana, Stangrecki said. "A lot of people in Pittsburgh are concerned about illegal (drug) use and sales," he said.

"It's hard to say," said Steve McClain, who owns the Slacker store on Carson Street in the South Side. "I don't know if (Pittsburgh) would be the last place on earth" to get pot legalization.

When Slacker opened in 1991, it was one of the city's few pot smoker-friendly establishments that sold pipes and bongs.

Then, almost two years ago, the local U.S. Attorney's Office made headlines when it was part of a nationwide crackdown, "Operation Pipe Dreams," that involved Slacker and other drug paraphernalia distributors.

Among more than 30 defendants, was California actor Tommy Chong, of the famed comedy duo Cheech & Chong, and a virtual Mt. Rushmore face for the pot-smoking community. He went to prison for being the face of "Chong Glass," handmade pipes.

Slacker stopped selling bongs, even before the 2003 raid, McClain said.

Western District U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan said her office wasn't particularly zealous when it came to enforcing federal laws, associated with marijuana.

"This region has a reputation for abiding by the law," Buchanan said.

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