State College’s New Marijuana Law Has Good Intentions But Isn’t Perfect
The State College Borough Council voted to approve an ordinance on August 1 “providing for the assessment of a summary offense for the possession of small amounts of marijuana under certain terms and conditions.”
The move was hailed as a way to reduce the impacts of marijuana-related charges on federal aid for students, legal fees, and life-long consequences for those found guilty. While marijuana enthusiasts across State College rejoiced that they would no longer be put behind bars for such insignificant offenses, a closer look at the new ordinance reveals much of its original intent misses the mark.
By providing for the assessment of a summary offense, police now have the option to issue a citation for a small possession case. However, the option to file a criminal charge still exists under Pennsylvania and Federal law and may be implemented.
“This Chapter shall not be construed to supersede any existing Pennsylvania or Federal Law,” the ordinance reads. “State College Police Officers retain the authority to enforce any applicable laws.” With this caveat to the law, the decision to file a criminal charge or a summary offense is left vague and seemingly open to discretion.
The vagueness is understandable though, as laws on the subject are hard to nail down, especially with pressure from anti-drug supporters and federal and state authorities. States have only recently made progress in the movement to ease marijuana restrictions, so expecting the answer on a silver platter is ill-advised in local government.
The most glaring issue with the ordinance is what was previously a misdemeanor charge — which could be expunged with classes and fines — is now a summary offense and remains on an individual’s record for five years. For example, if a freshman receives a summary offense from the police, it would stick with them for the rest of their college career and beyond. A stupid mistake freshman year could cost the individual internships and eventually even a job.
Under the new provision, if someone is walking down the street in State College and police find 30 grams or less of marijuana in their pocket, the police could choose to charge the person with only a summary offense. The summary offense amounts to a $250 fine, but if you’re caught actively smoking, you could incur an additional $350.
“The fines that we have were modeled after the open bottle fines,” Borough Councilman Jesse Barlow said. While these options are better than a criminal charge, they fail to include the paraphernalia that often accompanies marijuana.
Not mentioned in the ordinance at all, paraphernalia in State College is still classified as a misdemeanor with a $2,500 fine and potentially one year in jail. If you’re walking down the street with a gram in your pocket, it might only cost you a few bucks, but the bong on your table at home could land you in court.
Alternatively, if police find one gram of weed on someone and that person also happens to be holding some kind of paraphernalia, they will be given a summary charge, which will be kept on their record for five years, plus the misdemeanor and fines that accompany the possession of a smoking device. Because of this situation, the ordinance has effectively made marijuana laws in State College a double-edged sword. Barlow said it’s possible a new provision including paraphernalia could be added sometime in the future, but the concept is still very young and only just being developed.
Another vague aspect of the ordinance is the boundaries it governs. While the IST Building technically sits in the Borough of State College, it is part of the university, and Barlow explained that the new law does not apply to any Penn State property. State College has a total area of 4.517 square miles and University Park alone comprises 1.51 square miles of that, so the area impacted by the ordinance only amounts to approximately three square miles when the campus area is removed. Michael DiRaimo, former Vice President of Government and Community Relations, wrote to the Council urging them not to pass the measure and cited the university’s inability to enforce such an ordinance.
“First and foremost, the university must comply with federal law, and under federal law the possession of marijuana remains illegal and constitutes a criminal misdemeanor… Moreover, the university has enacted measures to establish compliance with the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act Amendments of 1989, which requires institutions receiving federal financial aid to implement a program preventing the possession of illicit drugs by students and employees on university premises or as part of any of its activities” DiRaimo wrote to Council President Thomas Daubert on May 26, found on page 47 of the corresponding Borough Council meeting agenda.
Federal influence often rears its head when schools that receive federal aid need to make decisions. One of the major benefits of the ordinance remains that students are able to retain their financial aid because the summary offense doesn’t disqualify a student like a criminal charge does — if you’re only given a summary offense, you get to keep your student aid money. Unfortunately, since there is no mention of paraphernalia, a student can very well still lose their aid during a run-in with the State College Police if they are in possession of paraphernalia.
What was originally crowned as a progressive move for State College backfired and imposed an ordinance that could actually cause more harm than good for students in the long term. With the five-year record that accompanies a summary charge, individuals could still be impacted long after the original citation. Additionally, the fact that paraphernalia is still a misdemeanor ensures the devices needed to use marijuana will still place an individual in the same situation as the drug itself did before the ordinance.
With or without the ordinance, marijuana is illegal on Penn State property, and Penn State owns a lot of property that students spend a lot of time on. It could be easy for people in the community to not realize they are on the university’s land and wind up in more trouble than they expected. While the Borough Council’s move is a step in the right direction, as it shows the Borough’s willingness to discuss such topics, the ordinance itself is ultimately as useless as a screen door on a submarine.