Sharpsburg officials considering decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana

Sharpsburg officials are exploring the possibility of decriminalizing possession of marijuana and related paraphernalia.

Specifically: a small amount of all forms and varieties of cannabis, as well as the smoking of it in public spaces.

Mayor Brittany Reno cast the deciding vote at Thursday night’s council meeting. The move allows the borough to advertise an ordinance to analyze the possibility of creating a pilot program to allow such marijuana use for one year.

The purpose of the program would be “to assess the social and economic benefits to be gained by decriminalizing the offense.”

There were concerns about spending advertising dollars on an ordinance that may not pass and has a divided council.

“I don’t consider it a waste (of money),” Reno said.

The advertisement was approved 4-3, with council members Carrie Tongarm, Kayla Portis and Jaso in favor of moving forward, along with Mayor Reno. Council President Adrianne Lang, Vice President Karen Pilarski-Pastor and Sarah Ishma dissented.

There was a 3-3 tie among council, which required the mayor to vote, because of a vacancy created when councilman-elect Brian Kozara resigned before he took office. Kozara had moved out of the borough and was not sworn in at the Jan. 3 reorganization meeting.

A small amount is defined in the ordinance as 30 grams or less of marijuana or eight grams or less of hashish. That’s how it’s defined in Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act. There are 28 grams in an ounce.

Should the ordinance be formally adopted at the Feb. 24 meeting, people caught in possession or smoking marijuana would still face consequences.

Penalties outlined in the proposed legislation include a $25 fine for anyone in possession of marijuana or paraphernalia, and a $100 fine for anyone caught smoking it.

The court may suspend the fines and summary violations in lieu of community service, including four hours for possession and eight hours for smoking, according to the ordinance.

“The up side is that there is no record of a criminal misdemeanor that would be on one’s criminal record,” Councilman Jon Jaso said via email after the meeting. “If they cause a problem, then maybe they leave with a minor fine. This is still putting the discretion in an officers hand, but we are reducing the criminal aspect of it.”

He called marijuana a “harmless vice,” and believes the ordinance would let state legislators know of Sharpsburg’s stance on this issue.

“Passing this ordinance would send a message to Harrisburg that we support legalization of marijuana in the commonwealth,” he said. “If enough communities adopt that philosophy, then maybe we can truly get reform.”

Pastor said she opposes the ordinance for three reasons.

“No. 1, we’re ignoring state law,” Pastor said. “No. 2, we’re ignoring our chief, who we pay and trust to (protect) this town. No. 3, we’re ignoring our officers, who have said they will not enforce it because they are bound to enforce state law. So, how arrogant are we to pass thing?”

Police Chief Thomas Stelitano said the ordinance would be moot because marijuana is still illegal under state law.

“I don’t think this is something we need in the borough at this time,” the police chief said.

He also noted incidents involving marijuana in the borough are minimal, and that he and his department have fought to keep drugs off Sharpsburg streets.

Ishman said decriminalizing marijuana should be taken up at the federal level and not in local government. She also cautioned against using taxpayer money on a temporary measure.

“I don’t like the idea of spending ordinance money for something that only lasts one year,” Ishman said. “I’m not sure that it actually protects against bias, because it’s still a state offense. If it doesn’t do that, I am not in favor of it in this form and at this time.”

Tongarm said she has not heard from many residents in support of the proposed ordinance, and believes advertising it would help generate public input.

“Advertising an ordinance is an essential function of a democracy that works, a transparent government,” she said. “If we’re going to sit up here and pass meaningful legislation, I want community involvement. … Making a motion to advertise an ordinance I think is the bare minimum function of our jobs. Period.”

Resident Kelly Strain was the only one to take the podium during the citizen comment portion of the meeting to voice her concerns about the proposed ordinance.

She also cited state law, four incidents of marijuana reported by borough police last year and questioned the need for the ordinance.

“These stats show me there is not an issue in Sharpsburg without police charging people with small amounts of marijuana,” Strain said. “Ordinances cost money. From what I hear from these council meetings, it sounds like we don’t have money to waste. Passage of this ordinance could cause an increase of drug activity in the borough.

“Why take this risk when there is no problem in the first place? Please do not vote yes to advertise this ordinance. Please wait for the state to change the law.”

State and college marijuana-related efforts

A bipartisan bill that would allow those over the age of 21 to buy and use marijuana was introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature last February by state Sens. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, and Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia.

The bill would also expunge the convictions of those sentenced for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses.

Existing medical marijuana dispensaries would be allowed to sell their products to the public, and new dispensaries would be licensed.

Marijuana legalization could be expected to bring in more than $400 million in revenue for Pennsylvania, according to the senators. It is unclear when that bill would be acted upon.

A University of Pittsburgh study released last year suggests legalizing marijuana for recreational use could lead to fewer opioid-spurred health emergencies and overdose deaths.

Lead study author Coleman Drake said at the time that the research does not point to cannabis legalization as “the silver bullet” to stemming the opioid epidemic, but it could be “another arrow in the quivers” of policymakers to combat the broader crisis.

Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, or via Twitter .

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