Lehigh Valley

Easton nips marijuana decriminalization in the bud

Opponents say state should change laws

EASTON, Pa. - In a 4-3 vote, Easton Council voted against a marijuana decriminalization ordinance at Wednesday’s meeting.

The ordinance would have given Easton police officers the discretion to treat small amounts of marijuana and paraphernalia as civil offenses, usually involving a ticket, instead of criminal offenses. 

Key concerns were the city’s responsibility to uphold state and federal laws, and whether the ordinance would encourage unfair policing practices.

“I do agree with decriminalization, but I don’t think this board has the authority to do that,” Mayor Sal Panto said.

Panto voted against the ordinance, basing his decision on the advice of city solicitor William Murphy, who said the issue came from and should be resolved at the state level.

Panto said he’d made an oath to follow state laws.

“And so have our police officers,” he said.

Peter Melan, who introduced the ordinance, made a last effort to persuade other city officials for their support. 

“Let’s be frank here. The feds aren’t going to come here and start knocking us down for [overlooking] an ounce of weed,” Melan said. “Officers have discretion today.”

Melan asked Murphy why cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, York and Erie had gone ahead with similar ordinances if it couldn’t legally be done.

Murphy said it was a method of authorizing states to enact legislation for small amounts of marijuana, handed down from the federal level. It doesn’t extend to the local level.

“I think they took a leap of faith,” Murphy said.

Jeff Riedy, director of Lehigh Valley NORML, argued that the municipal ordinance would improve court backlog and help police officers focus their time.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli told Easton they could pass the ordinance with his support, Riedy said. 

Melan said the city had received the district attorney’s blessing and would be fine with the city going ahead with the ordinance.

“Well, I’d like to see the blessing in writing,” Murphy responded.

Council member Sandra Vulcano had spoken to Morganelli but said she was torn on the vote after hearing the solicitor’s advice. 

Council member Kenneth Brown said that the city government had to set an example, as a body of leaders, of what it would tolerate in the city. He remained adamantly against the ordinance.

Vulcano and Brown said the solicitor’s job was to protect council, and they should respect his expertise.

The vote fell into a 4-3 vote, with Roger Ruggles, Panto, Brown and Vulcano voting against. David O’Connell, Melan and James Edinger supported the ordinance.

Officials said they would support state decriminalization legislation and would draft a resolution of support for upcoming state bill HB928, which is being introduced into committee on March 12.

Other business

After the regular meeting, the Da Vinci Science Center unveiled the master plan for their Easton Science City.

A full range of studies, from traffic to marketing and feasibility, are coming up next.  Once the marketing and feasibility studies come through — results are currently expected in June — both Easton and the Da Vinci will be able to judge the project’s future.

Public discussion was a mixed bag of enthusiastic support, constructive criticism and debate on how the downtown development would affect Easton’s neighborhoods.

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