If a movement opposed to decriminalizing marijuana in Pittsburgh exists, its followers did not choose to speak at a public forum Tuesday afternoon in City Council chambers.
Instead, about 40 citizens told council members why they should vote to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, citing concerns about racial disparity in arrests, complications of having a criminal record and the right to self-medicate.
“I’m a homeowner. I’m a taxpayer. I’ve also been a criminal for about 40 years,” said Michael Keenan, 58, of Spring Hill. “I am tired of being a criminal over a plant.”
Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle of the Hill District introduced the decriminalization proposal in November. It would add language to the city’s crime code that makes possessing up to 30 grams of marijuana punishable by a $25 fine. The proposal is poised for passage with at least six of nine council members voicing their intentions to vote yes.
Decriminalizing Marijuana in Pittsburgh
The law is modeled on one that went into effect in Philadelphia in October 2014. After a year, police reported 4,000 fewer marijuana arrests, a decrease of 73 percent.
Data from the Pennsylvania Unified Crime Reporting System show Pittsburgh city police arrested 415 adults and 38 juveniles for possession through October 2015. In 2014, they arrested 884 adults and 69 juveniles, down from 1,070 adults and 107 juveniles in 2013.
The hearing drew an audience of almost 80 people. Backgrounds ranged from those once arrested for possession; friends and family of medicinal users; college students and professors; drug treatment experts; and Pittsburgh residents spanning all ages and races. Some wore suits to go before council; others opted for knit caps and jeans.
Attendees applauded after each speaker. They shared hugs and handshakes after emotional testimonials.
Aggie Brose of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. and Patrick Nightingale of Pittsburgh NORML, who helped craft the bill, cited how arrests can make it difficult for people to find employment. Nightingale said the law will reflect what often happens in practice, as many marijuana charges are reduced to summary offenses.
A study from the American Civil Liberties Union in 2013 found that while marijuana arrest rates are disproportionately higher in the black community, usage rates are the same among white people. Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, said marijuana arrests have “hampered the future of young adults.”
Elsewhere, users have been punished less severely for years.
Mississippi decriminalized marijuana in 1976 by making up to 30 grams punishable by a $100 to $250 fine. About half the states allow medical usage. More recently, states including Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon legalized recreational use.
Yvonne Brown, 69, of the Hill District, told council how possession arrests can crush job and education opportunities.
“We made the rules about marijuana, but God made it just the way it is,” Brown said.