FOLCROFT >> Borough council on Tuesday joined a growing number of municipalities in the state that have “decriminalized” possession of a small amount of marijuana in a bid to relieve both residents and the justice system of the burden of prosecuting simple possession offenses.
“This measure was long overdue,” said council President Joe Papaleo in a release. “The resources which are utilized to arrest and prosecute residents for simple possession can no longer be justified. The lifelong ramifications of being put into the criminal justice system for an inconsequential offense are severe and can also no longer be justified. I am proud to have been a participant and advocate of this unanimously approved justice reform in my town.”
Folcroft now joins Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, York, State College, Erie, Lancaster, Bethlehem, Norristown and Steelton in the state, as well as 27 states and Washington, D.C., who have some form of decriminalization on the books for marijuana.
Ordinance 2020-1, which took effect immediately upon passage, defines a “small amount” as 30 grams or less of marijuana and eight grams or less of hashish. It notes that “personnel possession” does not include possession with intent to deliver, distribute, transfer or sell.
Any adult caught with a small amount of marijuana or paraphernalia under the terms of the ordinance will be issued a non-traffic summary citation, which can also be mailed to the individual’s home address.
The process is somewhat more involved for minors, who will be temporarily detained, but law enforcement will still follow the normal procedures for handling summary offenses committed by a minor.
This includes alerting a parent or guardian that the minor was caught in possession of marijuana or paraphernalia, issuance of a copy of the citation to the parent or guardian, advising them they are responsible for paying a fine, and providing contact information for a local agency where substance abuse education and treatment programs are available.
Fines for possessing or using marijuana or paraphernalia are each set at $100, though the court may suspend the fine at its discretion if the offender agrees to perform up to 25 hours of community service.
The release cites Uniform Crime Reports issued annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which indicate there were 663,367 marijuana law violation arrests nationwide in 2018, the last year on record. Of those, 608,775 were arrested for possession only, according to the FBI.
Giving officers the discretion to issue a citation rather than make an arrest frees up resources to combat crimes that endanger public safety and removes the trauma of going through the criminal court system for marijuana consumers, the release states.
Folcroft Police Chief William Bair could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Morton Police Chief Joseph LaSpina said his department has been creatively treating a 1998 ordinance dealing with drug paraphernalia in much the same manner since he came on as chief in late 2016.
LaSpina said Morton’s ordinance – initially passed to block “head shops” from operating in the borough and selling to minors – makes it unlawful to possess or sell things like smoking devices and baggies.
“How it was worded was ‘possession of,’ and part of the ‘possession of’ was a baggie, a roach clip, a bong, or whatever it was,” he said. “Well, every time you have a small amount of marijuana, it’s in something. It’s in a baggie, that’s considered paraphernalia, so what I did is I used that as our ‘small amount’ instead of charging them criminally. I kind of got a little creative with the ordinance and it’s been very effective since then.”
LaSpina said his officers will confiscate the paraphernalia, along with its contents, which is stored as evidence. Offenders are then issued a non-traffic summary citation, either through the mail or sometimes on the spot, but no arrests are made and no criminal charges are filed.
“It’s been really effective since I’ve been doing it,” said LaSpina. “I’ve been doing it for about two and a half, three years since we really got our teeth into it, and it’s not clogging up the court system, it’s saving our officers paperwork, time – you know, time is money – we’re keeping our officers on the street. People don’t have to get fingerprinted, we don’t have to take the evidence out to the lab to get it weighed and analyzed, and officers are spending less time in court and the people aren’t getting criminal records that they later have to get expunged. Sometimes people make these choices when they’re younger and they have to pay a lot for them when they get older.”
Morton’s ordinance caps fines at $1,000 plus costs, as well as attorneys’ fees and, and can result in up to 90 days in prison if the fine is defaulted. But LaSpina said officers will typically work with the court to find a reasonable fine amount which is far below the maximum.
“Keep in mind that every case is an individual case, so I don’t have any obvious set rules for how I do this because every individual case is different,” said Magisterial District Judge Andrea Puppio, who handles cases originating in Morton. “Having said that, when I get them, the only information I have is what’s contained in the citation, which often times is not a lot of information, but enough to tell me it falls within the statutes and where it is within the realm of the ordinance.”
Puppio said she will set a fine amount and then the defendant can enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If they plead not guilty, they can request a hearing and the case will go from there. Otherwise, they might set some sort of payment plan for the fine and she usually won’t see them again after that unless they have a problem with the plan.
“If they request a hearing, they will have the hearing or the Morton police may come in and say, ‘I have spoken with this individual, they have agreed to plead guilty if you agree to lower the fine,’ and since the fine is a range, that can be done,” she said. “In addition to which, if I have a hearing and, let’s say, when the citation came in and I gave it a fine in the beginning – which I’m required to, you cannot do anything without the fine in there – I might hear all the evidence but don’t think you need to pay that much of a fine, I’m going to lower the fine.”
Puppio did not recall anecdotally what fine amounts she might have set in the past, noting the coronavirus has temporarily suspended hearing non-traffic citations for months, but LaSpina said using the citation system has worked out well so far, and other departments in the county have begun to follow suit.
LaSpina noted Aston requested a copy of Morton’s ordinance after its officials heard what his department was doing, and Aston passed an almost identical paraphernalia ordinance in July 2019. Aston Police Chief Daniel Ruggieri could not be reached for comment Wednesday, however, so it was unclear if it is being enforced in the same fashion as Morton.
“Obviously the district attorney is supportive of Folcroft’s decision because this is something he wanted to explore from the day he was sworn in – to try and work to (stop) people from being arrested for using marijuana, and fortunately there is more widespread support for that than there has been historically,” said Margie McAboy, a spokeswoman for county District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer. “He sees it as part of a ‘smart on crime’ plan and there is a tentative plan to introduce an ordinance in front of Delaware County Council that would support decriminalization in other municipalities.”
A spokesperson for county council did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
“I think there is a general acknowledgment that it is not the highest and best use of police officers’ time,” said McAboy. “The effect on the communities is just absurd and disproportionate.”
She added that any countywide ordinance that may be passed would be narrowly tailored to only address small amounts of marijuana for personal use and would not hamper officer’s abilities to go after drug dealers.
“The idea would be that we would have this council legislation – most likely an ordinance – and then municipalities would be free to define it slightly differently,” said McAboy. “The default position would be to decriminalize, but then the boroughs could go further. Somehow we’ll thread the needle where we show deference to the municipalities, but at the same time try to accomplish this overarching goal of decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.”
McAboy noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has already forced the county prison in Concord to halve its population with expedited plea bargains, release of probation- or parole-only offenders, and suspension of a partial confinement program for low-level offenders, which she said has not caused the fabric of the community to unravel.
“I don’t think the fact that there are fewer people sitting in George Hill has caused things to fall apart in Delaware County,” she said. “Capacity is over 1,800, and it was routine to have 1,700 in there, and now it’s under 1,000. So that’s pretty remarkable and I like to think of that as fewer lives ruined.”