Is the grass greener?: A Brief Recap of Recent Marijuana Trends
Talking to Michael Nolan and Bob Merski about the ins and outs of Erie's recent decriminalization
By: Liz Allen
In the past year, the city of Erie decriminalized possessing or smoking small amounts of marijuana, the first medical marijuana dispensary opened within the city limits, and Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman brought his listening tour to Erie to hear what local residents have to say about legalizing recreational marijuana.
But it remains to be seen if or when the first two developments will influence the third.
State Rep. Robert Merski, D-2nd Dist., who was elected to the state House of Representatives in November, championed decriminalization of marijuana when he served on Erie City Council. Council unanimously approved his proposal on Jan. 17, 2018.
"Much like prohibition in the early 1930s, there are many people using marijuana even though it is illegal. Additionally, enforcement of marijuana laws disproportionately impacts people in minority communities and people in poverty," Merski said. "Many people are in jail for non-violent crimes involving marijuana possession. This is why I led
The change meant that offenders possessing 30 grams or less of marijuana would receive a summons, akin to a traffic ticket, and assessed a fine, instead of facing criminal charges.
But it may be a while before data is generated and evaluated to measure the impact of the city's ordinance on the criminal justice system.
Deputy Chief Michael A. Nolan, of the criminal investigation division for the Erie Bureau of Police, said that in 2017, "pre-ordinance," there were 140 offenders arrested for marijuana possession as a "level-one charge," according to statistics reported under the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting program. A "level-one charge" is where
The number of marijuana arrests where marijuana was the level-one charge dropped to 106 for 2018, he said.
Someone can still be criminally charged, as opposed to being cited by summons, for marijuana possession if the person possesses more than a "small amount" of marijuana. As defined in the city ordinance approved on Jan. 17, 2018, a "small amount" is 30 grams or less of marijuana or eight grams or less of hashish. In other words, it can still be a misdemeanor to possess marijuana.
But the bureau does not currently have an effective way to track lower-level offenses because the current record management system is on "life support," said Nolan. The bureau can't currently monitor whether someone charged with driving under the influence as a lead charge might also have received a secondary charge of marijuana possession, or whether a marijuana charge might be knocked down to a summary offense when the person arrested appears before a district justice.
Recreational marijuana use is still illegal, but Erie police "are not on some crusade to stomp out marijuana use," Nolan said. It's a question of priorities. "One thing we can all agree on. You do not want your police department resources spent on (arrests for) recreational marijuana use when we have much more important issues we're working on," he said. Erie police concentrate on the drug crimes tied to violence, he said.
The city's new ordinance hasn't led to people feeling like they are "entitled" to smoke marijuana out in the open, he said. But police have become more proactive in having a presence around schools, before and after classes begin, to discourage kids from smoking marijuana close to school grounds and to cut down on truancy.
Nolan worked in the bureau's narcotics unit for 15 years before being named to the command staff under Erie Police Chief Dan Spizarny. Nolan has seen trends come and go with illegal drugs. When he began working in narcotics, "crack cocaine was king in Erie," he said. Then by about mid-2005, it became heroin, with all of its deadly consequences. Now meth has made a resurgence.
Meanwhile, Fetterman has visited 29 out of 67 counties so far on his listening tour about whether Pennsylvania should legalize recreational marijuana. Fetterman visited the Jefferson Educational Society in Erie on Feb. 16. His next visit in this region will be from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on April 13, in Forest County, at the Tionesta Volunteer Fire Department, 107 Bridge St.
Merski thinks legalization is worth exploring. "We have the infrastructure in place through the Wine & Spirit shops to sell marijuana in a highly regulated manner," Merski said. "I believe this would cut down on crimes involving black market drug activity and provide much-needed revenue for the state from something people are already doing anyway."
Merski is hardly alone in that opinion. According to the Franklin & Marshall College Poll released in March, 59 percent of state voters support legalizing marijuana. That's up from 22 percent of registered voters who supported legalization when the F&M Poll first asked the question in 2006.
Liz Allen had a few college friends who liked to get high but her only guilty pleasure has always been chocolate. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org