Where to Draw the Line State College's New Law to Ease Marijuana Penalties Isn't That Simple

By Schackner, Bill | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), August 22, 2016 | Go to article overview

Where to Draw the Line State College's New Law to Ease Marijuana Penalties Isn't That Simple


Schackner, Bill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Call it a victory for pot smoking in a college town.

Or view it as a law change just confusing enough to land some students living on or near Penn State University's main campus in bigger trouble than they envisioned.

Just as the fall semester starts, State College is becoming the latest municipality in Pennsylvania to move toward decriminalizing marijuana.

A new ordinance effective Sept. 7 will give borough police discretion to treat possession and use of 30 grams or less as a summary offense, rather than a misdemeanor violation of state law punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a $500 fine and potentially loss of student financial aid.

Under the ordinance, police can issue nontraffic citations similar to being caught in public with an open alcohol container. Fines of $250 for possession and $350 for consumption in public will not endanger federal financial aid, police and campus officials say.

Proponents say the measure approved Aug. 1 by borough council makes more sense than jeopardizing someone's job or scholarship over a relatively minor offense. They say that view is becoming mainstream, citing similar ordinances enacted as close by as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as well as in a growing number of states that have lessened penalties or legalized small amounts.

"There has definitely been a sea change in attitudes," State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham said. "It's not seen as a serious threat to our students here."

Even so, those emboldened to light up on or near campus after Sept. 7, telling themselves, "Hey, it's just a fine," may want to first consider a catch with the new ordinance - actually, a few of them.

For starters, only part of Penn State's University Park campus is in State College. The campus of 46,000 students also sits in parts of College, Ferguson, Patton and Benner townships, which have no such ordinance, nor does the rest of Centre County.

Even if those municipalities enact something similar, Penn State says it is still obliged under federal law to treat marijuana as a misdemeanor on campus or risk losing financial aid and research subsidies.

That begs the question: Is sneaking a hit from a joint in a campus dorm room now a bigger threat to one's academic future than strutting down a busy borough street at noon getting high? Is it better to be spotted lighting up by borough cops in a municipal garage than by university police outside Beaver Stadium on game day?

Some can't resist poking fun, judging by comments posted to Onward State, an alternative student-oriented news site.

"The Boro needs to outline its boundaries in bright red paint," one reader said.

"Or in Big Green Plants. . Whatever works," said another.

Then there is the matter of paraphernalia. Apparently, nobody bothered to address it in the ordinance.

Until that's changed, anyone stopped in the borough with an amount of marijuana small enough to escape criminal prosecution still can be charged with a misdemeanor for carrying rolling papers or a pipe.

With classes due to start today, and with students already expressing confusion, Penn State administrators sought to clarify things with a question-and-answer sheet devoted to Ordinance 2078. They said reducing penalties does not mean marijuana is legal in State College and that "the ordinance may not apply where you live."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, meaning in general that offenses are considered lesser civil infractions rather than violations of state law or are misdemeanors for which there is no jail time. …

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