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State College Borough Considering Ordinance To Reduce Marijuana Penalties

The State College borough council at their meeting on May 2, 2016.
Erin Cassidy Hendrick

At a State College borough council meeting in May, Mill Creek resident Christy Billett made an emotional appeal to the board, telling them how getting charged with marijuana possession derailed her life. 

She said, “In 2001, I was charged with possession of an ounce and a half. I was three-quarters of the way through college, going to business school for medical transcription. I lost all my funding, I had the option of coming up with $2,300 out of pocket or dropping out of college. I’m a product of my society and of these corrupt drug laws. I do not have an education now, I had to quit college and I have been having trouble seeking employment ever since.”

Billett told her story during a public hearing on a new ordinance. If passed, it would change the penalty for possession of a small amount of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a summary offense.

That would make being caught with a small amount of marijuana roughly equal to a speeding ticket. Instead of being arrested, you would be given a ticket and a fine. Also, unlike Christy Billett, students who receive federal financial aid would likely be able to keep it. FAFSA only asks about federal and state drug convictions, not municipal fines.

Luis Rolfo is a senior at Penn State. He’s the one who proposed the ordinance to the State College borough council. He said, “At the public hearing, it was a packed room. Only two people spoke against it and I’m really happy with the success that we’ve made.”

Rolfo believes State College should be an example for other cities in overturning what he believes are unnecessarily harsh marijuana laws. “I mean, Philadelphia, New York City and Pittsburgh, all have passed similar ordinances and I figured, why not in State College?” he said.

Right now, most first-time offenders are sentenced with “Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition,” or ARD. That means, barring any other criminal activity, they’d receive probation and the charge would be expunged from their public record in a year.

Rolfo doesn’t think ARD is a workable fix. Especially since the fees for that program range from $1,300 to $1,500. He said, “I think ARD is a cash cow. I think that does not work. I think that while a summary offense is not the final solution, it is a step in the right direction.”

But State College police chief Tom King disagrees. He says while this ordinance is meant to reduce penalties, it could have an unintended consequence - especially for Penn State students. “A big concern I have is, if I charge you with a misdemeanor, you’re gonna get ARD, and have it wiped out in one year, probably before you ever go out to get a job,” he said.

If the new ordinance is passed, that would change. Although more minor, King says the summary offense would stay on an offender’s public record for much longer. 

King said, “The rule is, after 5 years, it gets wiped out from the local court, but not until 5 years. So I could see someone being a sophomore or junior, having that on their record that is publicly available to any employer or any parent or anybody else, getting on there and punching your name if you’ve applied for a job and say ‘oh, they got charged with a small amount of marijuana, local ordinance at the borough,’ So watch what you ask for, it might only say it’s a summary offense, but bottom line, the offense is use of marijuana.”

And stricter penalties would still apply on the Penn State campus, where King says many more marijuana arrests are made. He said, “By comparison, Penn State gets a lot of it in the residence halls particularly. And this is my recollection ballpark, they handled about 175 cases in 2015 and we handled about 35 cases, thereabouts.”

And that’s not likely to change, even if this ordinance is passed. Penn State says it would follow the lead of universities in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where similar laws have already been passed. Penn and Temple still maintain “drug free campuses.” So if Penn State does the same, a student caught on campus with marijuana will still face a misdemeanor charge.

So Chief King isn’t convinced this ordinance will have much of an impact. He thinks it might end up being largely symbolic. But Luis Rolfo thinks the ordinance is still significant. 

Rolfo said, “Let’s say it is purely symbolic. I think we are sending a strong message to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and to other areas to say we are going to be on the right side of history and now is the time to do something about our draconian drugs laws.”

The State College borough will vote on whether to pass the new marijuana ordinance tonight at their meeting. 

Erin Cassidy Hendrick was an associate producer at WPSU. She produced the programs “BookMark” and “This I Believe” for the station.
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