With the enactment of City Bill 140377-A[1] which took effect on October 20, 2014, Philadelphia is now one of the largest metropolitan jurisdictions to formally decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession. In taking this step towards reformation of marijuana penalties, Philadelphia City Council follows the likes of Washington D.C. and other major cities which have aimed to decriminalize small marijuana use.

Under the new law, police will no longer be required to go through the formal procedures of arresting, booking, processing and fingerprinting suspects. Neither will police be required to take time out of their day to attend or testify at criminal proceedings. Such requirements not only consume time, money and public resources for such menial infractions, but also infringe on police efforts to fight greater crimes. Rather, the law mandates that individuals found in possession of less than thirty (30) grams of marijuana will be subject to a fine and possible community service. Such an offense will be treated as a “summary offense” and will not result in a criminal record under the Pennsylvania State Repository.

Pennsylvanians should be aware of the narrow legal effects of this bill. First and foremost, the new law only applies to Philadelphia County. The crime of “Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana” (35 Pa.C.S. 78-113(a)(31)(i)) is still an arrestable offense in other parts of Pennsylvania, including the surrounding counties of Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester.  Individuals convicted of possessing a small amount of marijuana outside of Philadelphia County will have a misdemeanor criminal record, not merely a summary offense, and may be subject to an excessive fine and possible jail time.

Second, any amount of marijuana possession is still illegal under federal law. Although extremely rare and unlikely, an individual may still be arrested, charged and convicted of marijuana possession and prosecuted within Philadelphia under federal law. This irony cannot be underestimated: although the federal court sits within the confines of Philadelphia County, a “decriminalized” marijuana city, an individual charged with marijuana possession under federal law faces up to one-year incarceration and double the fines than under state law.

Marijuana reform is a rapidly expanding area of criminal law in many states, not just Pennsylvania. However, one area of marijuana reform that is not expanding is immigration law. The collateral consequences of a conviction for marijuana possession for non-U.S. citizens can have very serious consequences. Most importantly, a Pennsylvania conviction for a drug listed under the Controlled Substance Act (21 U.S.C. 1308, et. seq.) may result in deportation and permanent ban from the United States. As of 2014, the federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule I drug, which is in the same category as peyote, heroin, ecstasy, and LSD.  Fortunately, there is an exception under immigration law: a single conviction involving 30 grams or less of marijuana possession for personal use, is not a removable offense.

Each year, the discussion on decriminalization of marijuana laws gains more momentum. Consequently, each year more state and local legislators have made it a goal to enact legislation supporting this ideology.  If you have been charged with possession of marijuana and are concerned with any type of consequence, call (267) 388-3476 to speak with a qualified attorney.

[1] Full text available here.

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