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Pittsburgh City Council tweaks pot decriminalization bill | TribLIVE.com
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Pittsburgh City Council tweaks pot decriminalization bill

Tribune-Review
| Tuesday, April 5, 2016 2:51 p.m

Smoking pot in Pittsburgh will still be illegal, but the punishment could equate to that of a traffic ticket.

City Council on Tuesday adopted a new version of an ordinance that members approved in December, potentially reducing the penalty for possession or smoking marijuana in public to a summary offense.

Anyone caught with 30 grams or less could be subject to a $25 fine. Those caught smoking it could have to shell out $100.

Council approved the ordinance 8-1, and Mayor Bill Peduto is expected to sign it.

Under the legislation, police officers still have a choice to charge a person with a misdemeanor under state law. The charge under the city ordinance, however, contains no reference to marijuana, making it difficult for an employer to uncover it as a drug violation during a criminal background check.

“This is a good step,” said Councilman Ricky Burgess of North Point Breeze, who opposes drug use but compared a marijuana conviction to a “life sentence … of not being able to get a job.”

Under Title 6, Section 626 of Pittsburgh’s City Code, violators would be guilty of “certain defined conduct.”

Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle of the Hill District, the bill’s author, believes the average employer would not dig deep enough to find out that the conduct in question involved marijuana.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris of Spring Hill was the lone dissenting vote.

She said Pittsburgh’s Home Rule Charge prohibits council from enacting legislation that supersedes state law.

“When I took office I took an oath that I would support state and local law, and that’s what I’m doing,” she said.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith of Westwood said she was worried the ordinance could confuse city residents into thinking the same penalties would apply in neighboring municipalities.

“Hopefully, (Allegheny County Council) will take this up,” she said.

Council’s original bill effectively decriminalized marijuana possession by making it subject to a civil fine. It was not enforced because Pittsburgh courts have no mechanism for processing civil violations.

Lavelle said proponents wanted to craft an ordinance similar to Philadelphia’s, where violators are processed through a civil office. Offenses through that office do not appear on criminal background checks.

Pittsburgh’s problem is that it has no such office.

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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