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Delaware County Council began the process Wednesday night of turning the purchase, possession or smoking of a small amount of marijuana into a civil penalty, rather than a criminal one.

If eventually approved, the move, which has already been adopted in Upper Darby and Folcroft, would allow police officers discretion whether they want to issue a $50 civil fine for the purchase, possession or smoking of 30 grams or less of marijuana. However, the criminal designation remains in place if the act occurs on the grounds of any public library or any public, private or parochial elementary or secondary school.

It also would not supersede any existing state or federal law and any revenue collected in Delaware County is expected to be allocated to existing drug and alcohol programs. Gov. Tom Wolf has called on the General Assembly to legalize marijuana as a way to increase tax revenues considering the economic hit COVID-19 has taken.

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer described the motion under consideration as “common sense.”

“This is marijuana, just used for personal use, a small amount of marijuana no longer needs to be considered a misdemeanor crime, we can make it a summary offense,” he said, adding that it was a collaboration between law enforcement and county council and that public hearings will be held on the issue.

Delaware County Councilman Kevin Madden said county officials would be scheduling an independent public hearing to discuss solely this issue.

“Obviously, this is an ordinance that would have significant impact on lots and lots of people in Delaware County,” Madden said. “Such an ordinance requires a great deal of public consideration and discussion and that will occur. Today is really just kicking off that process … This is a long time coming, I think, and we’re anxious to get this process moving forward.”

County Councilwoman Christine Reuther agreed.

“Our goal is to start the conversation … to understand what unintended consequences there might be, to consider ‘Are there ways that we can make these ordinances better?’ and to hear from people, to hear from experts and to hear from our constituents,” she said, adding that they wanted to hear input from anyone wanting to offer it on the subject. “So, I invite you to stay tuned and do that.”

Councilwoman Elaine Paul Schaefer said audio-visual equipment was being installed in the hopes of having some in-person public meetings for this topic in accordance with the COVID-19 guidelines.

She underscored the measure’s ability to broaden law enforcement’s capabilities, not restrict them.

“I want to make clear that this ordinance would not take away any tool that a police officer has right now,” Schaefer said. “If a police officer or department chose to continue to treat these infractions the way they are treating them now, they could. Instead this gives them a tool, another tool to treat this particular infraction differently and treat it with with a summary offense.”

Council Chairman Brian Zidek said he’s heard requests from police officers who asked for more than a year to be given more discretion in making these decisions.

Council received at least one voice backing the proposed ordinance Wednesday night.

“I’d like to register my support for decriminalizing marijuana use and possession,” Geoffrey Matteson of Folsom said. “In this day and age, this is a very common and minimally harmful activity that should not be capable of bringing the law down on a person.”

On Aug. 19, Upper Darby Township approved a similar motion, changing the penalties for possessing 30 grams or less of marijuana and 8 grams or less of hashish or marijuana paraphernalia to a summary citation, rather than incarceration.  A month earlier, on July 21, Folcroft Borough Council did the same.

In their announcement of the initiative, Folcroft officials said similar measures have been taken in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, York, State College, Erie, Lancaster, Bethlehem, Norristown and Steelton in Pennsylvania, as well as 27 states and Washington, D.C.

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