Doylestown Borough committee advances relaxed marijuana penalty law to council

Christopher Dornblaser
Bucks County Courier Times

Those caught with a small amount of marijuana in Doylestown Borough could soon face lesser penalties.

On Wednesday night, the borough council's public safety subcommittee voted to pass a draft ordinance outlining relaxed marijuana penalties to borough council for advertisement.

The borough council could advertise it at its next meeting Monday and potentially vote on the ordinance at its April meeting. IT would be the first of its kind in Bucks County. 

Under the proposed ordinance, those found with less than 30 grams of marijuana or 8 grams or less of hashish would be issued a citation, akin to a non-traffic ticket, and would be fined $25.

If someone receives a citation for possession three times in a five-year period, they would then be charged with the misdemeanor for a fourth offense. Each fine is $25.

“It isn’t decriminalizing marijuana, it’s just providing an alternative punishment structure," Borough solicitor Ernest Closser said.

More:Doylestown Borough discusses relaxed marijuana penalties

More:Doylestown Borough considering relaxed marijuana penalty

Borough officials have been talking about a possible ordinance since the beginning of the year. During the last subcommittee meeting, they spoke about the costs of possibly having to test marijuana seized under the ordinance.

Central Bucks Regional Police Chief Karl Knott said, under the proposed ordinance, they would only test the seized suspected marijuana if someone fights the citation. If the substance tests positive for marijuana, then the costs of testing, which Capt. Robert Milligan estimated would be between $200 and $300, would go to the person who was cited.

Juveniles found with suspected marijuana would be detained, and their parents would be called. The parents would be informed they would be responsible for paying the fine, and would be given information on drug education and treatment. 

The ordinance is similar to ordinances in Norristown, Bethlehem and East Norriton.

Crandall Jones, administrator for Norristown, told borough officials during the meeting that Norristown has not had any issues with people fighting the citation, and that residents have been supportive of the ordinance.

“They felt that there were much worse things to be dealing with in the community than that," he said.

Borough councilman Joe Flood was the only member of the subcommittee to vote against sending the proposal to borough council. He said the Bucks County District Attorney's Office had provided thoughts on the proposed ordinance and recently offered to have a representative attend a meeting to speak with borough officials.

“They offered to come to a meeting," Flood said. "I think we should have them.”

Councilman Larry Browne suggested the subcommittee invite a representative from the DA's office to the next meeting.

DA Matt Weintraub said in a statement that state and federal law trump any local ordinance, and that Philadelphia's decision to have decreased penalties was "legally murky."

"I think it’s more a matter of choosing to direct police and prosecutorial discretion for such crimes, but a local council is legally unable to truly decriminalize something that has been made criminal by state and federal law.  Police have great discretion in who they arrest, and for what," Weintraub said. "However I would discourage a wholesale practice of marijuana decriminalization by your police department. We currently divert all Bucks County citizens who are arrested for possessing marijuana into a treatment diversionary program. If they successfully complete it, then their case is dismissed, and in instances of first offenses, their arrest is expunged."

Antonetta Stancu, a former prosecutor with the DA's office who is running for the office this year as a Democrat, announced Thursday that if she were to be elected, she would end prosecution on small amounts of marijuana.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars, it’s a waste of time for police and prosecutors, and it’s hurtful to the lives and futures of people arrested on these charges who are often stigmatized by employers and colleges, “ Stancu said in a news release. “As District Attorney, I will stop prosecuting otherwise law-abiding citizens for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.” 

Borough officials have said the proposed ordinance is not decriminalization, but rather alternative enforcement. Central Bucks Regional officers would still have discretion to file a misdemeanor offense.

Borough Mayor Ron Strouse told borough officials that New Britain Borough and Chalfont, both municipalities that Central Bucks Regional Police serve, are watching what Doylestown Borough does with the ordinance.

He said there's no indication if either of the boroughs will follow Doylestown.

“But they do know want to be educated on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it," he said.

Chief Knott has said the idea behind the relaxed enforcement is that younger offenders could get caught with marijuana and have a misdemeanor offense that could potentially cause problems for their future.

The subcommittee meets again on April 14.

Multiple areas in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, State College and York, have passed ordinances reducing penalties for small amounts of marijuana in recent years.