Local lawmakers in Pennsylvania’s capital city discovered on May 18 that reducing the penalties for possessing small quantities of marijuana can be a delicate and complex process. Members of the Harrisburg City Council had hoped to implement a law that would see marijuana possession classified as a summary offense rather than a misdemeanor, but questions about how the measure would be applied to juvenile offenders led to the discussion being tabled.

The proposed measure was drafted to reduce the burden placed on law enforcement and to favor treatment and counseling over punishment for juveniles caught with marijuana. However, council members were unable to reach an agreement over matters such as fine schedules and the number of repeat offenses that would trigger a misdemeanor charge. The mayor had advocated a beginning fine of $100, but several council members felt that this figure was too high and pointed to similar laws passed recently in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that feature fines beginning at $25.

The council members also debated the issue of suspending the driving privileges of those found in possession of marijuana. Individuals are often charged with possessing both marijuana and drug paraphernalia, and they routinely plead guilty to the paraphernalia charges in order to retain their driver’s licenses. Councilors debated the effectiveness of a law that would classify marijuana possession as a summary offense while still suspending the offender’s driving privileges.

Criminal defense attorneys will likely welcome measures that reduce the sometimes excessively harsh penalties for nonviolent drug offenses. Being convicted for even minor drug possession charges can result in consequences that go beyond fines and probation, and defense attorneys may point to mitigating factors to the prosecutor involved such as their client’s stable family background and sincere remorse when seeking leniency.

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