Lehigh Valley

Bill to lower penalties for pot moves forward in Allentown

Offense reduce from misdemeanor to summary

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Saying times are changing and the future is theirs, proponents of decriminalizing marijuana found receptive listeners Tuesday night in Allentown City Hall.

City Council's Committee of the Whole forwarded a bill to lessen the offense for possession of small amounts of the drug for personal use.

The vote was 4-3, with Councilwomen Candida Affa and Cynthia Mota and Councilmen Julio Guridy and Courtney Robinson voting yes. President Roger MacLean and Councilmen Daryl Hendricks and Edward Zucal voted no.

The legislation — Bill 17 — defines "small amount" as 30 grams or less of marijuana or eight grams or less of hashish. It would make possession of these amounts a summary offense rather than a misdemeanor.

It would not legalize the drug, but would substantially reduce the penalties.

In addition, the legislative body also approved a resolution recommending that the Pennsylvania House and Senate make the possession or personal use of a small amount of marijuana a summary offense, rather than the current misdemeanor charge.

The vote was unanimous.

Co-sponsors said the legislation would begin to right the wrongs inflicted on many victims, greatly benefit society, protect youth in the city and save the city copious amounts of money.

Mota said she was "excited to see this opportunity" to lower the penalties for pot. She added that the bill would "protect many youth who are stained for the rest of their lives" because of a misdemeanor arrest for possession.

Mota calculated the bill "will save local taxpayers millions," and would "begin to heal" those who are victims as a result of the current laws. She added the current laws were unfair, particularly to minorities, and that she "hears their concerns and shares their pain."

She challenged her colleagues "to do the right thing,"and forward the bill.

Robinson added to the pro-cannabis clarion call with his own statements, saying he was "proud" of what he was doing.

Robinson said the public had to accept that they "had been fed lies" about the harms of marijuana for years and the lies have to stop. The councilman added that, "We are demanding the state take action" to follow Allentown's suit.

"This is the time to do this," Robinson said of the bill. 

Affa said she determined that the idea that marijuana usage "leads to stronger drugs," is a fallacy. She reached this conclusion based on her experience as a tavern owner for 38 years, and explained the effects of drinking alcohol versus the impact of smoking pot.

Affa added that she "did not want to see another young person" have a criminal record because of the current laws. This criminal record could hinder them from gaining employment, gaining acceptance into college or university, prevent them from receiving a loan to pursue their higher educational studies or hinder them from being able to rent an apartment.

"Times have changed," Affa said, and added the current laws were "ridiculous."

Opponents did not share those views, and said the law would be unconstitutional and unenforceable.

To illustrate the point, Zucal asked MacLean to read into the record a letter.

The document was written by Lehigh County District Attorney James Martin, who said Allentown cannot pass a law that contradicts a higher authority's law. Thus, Allentown's effort would be unconstitutional.

Robinson attempted to suppress the opposing viewpoint's formal reading by bringing a motion to prevent Zucal's request. Robinson said the letter was already available on the city's website and reading it was unwarranted, The motion was seconded by Affa. However, it failed to garner additional support and was defeated by a 5-2 vote, and Martin's letter was read into the record by MacLean.

MacLean, Hendricks and Zucal are all former law enforcement officers. Hendricks disagreed with Affa's conclusion that marijuana was not a "gateway drug" to other drug use.

Supporters tout benefits of drug

Council's votes came only after a parade of pot supporters from Allentown and other municipalities and cities petitioned council, arguing how marijuana had improved their lives and would do the same for others if they just gave it an opportunity.

Decriminalization "is morally the right thing to do," said Eric Miller, who said he was a teacher. 

Marijuana has helped me," and it would do the same for others, he said.

He added that "revolutionary change starts small," but eventually revolutions that are on the right side of history cannot be denied. 

Another speaker, Gillian Heintzelman, said she was a victim of the current marijuana laws. She recounted a story of an arrest years previous for possessing a modest amount of the drug. She said the arrest had exacted a toll on her life and hindered her professional development. 

"I'm an American," she told council, "and I deserve to feel free."

She added that it "was her goal" now to work in the medical marijuana industry.

Another speaker in favor of the legislation, registered nurse Amy Peters, said the benefits of marijuana "are huge." 

"This is what we want," Peters said of the movement toward marijuana decriminalization.

Other speakers told council how they use marijuana regularly. They engage in this activity, they said, as it helps them with anxiety, various mental and physical disorders, sleeplessness and also raises their self-esteem and makes them feel better about themselves.

"Decriminalization will help a lot of people," said another speaker, Jeffrey Thomas, who said he has smoked cannabis most of his life.

The two bills will next be on a regular council session's agenda for final passage.

Video report by WFMZ's Will Lewis

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