Pennsylvania Top Prosecutor Recommends Legalization of Marijuana

The Pennsylvania Attorney General took to Twitter recently to throw his support behind the legalization of marijuana use for people over the age of 21.  Pennsylvania’s top prosecutor stated that “[c]ontinuing to criminalize adult personal marijuana use is a waste of limited law enforcement resources, it disproportionately impacts our minority communities and it does not make us safer.”  It is clear from his statement that he is taking a practical approach to the legalization issue, applying a cost-benefits analysis, and deciding that the costs of investigating, charging, and prosecuting marijuana offenses is high.  Many people do not believe that the War on Drugs that has been waged since the 1980s has been effective overall in reducing marijuana use.  It appears that the Attorney General would prefer to stop spending millions of dollars in prosecuting marijuana users.  Instead of spending money on marijuana, by legalizing and taxing the sale, the government can actually make money.

Some areas in Pennsylvania, like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and even the Borough of State College have decriminalized.  While State College has decriminalized marijuana, Penn State University and other neighboring townships have not.  Regrettably, many Penn State students are charged with marijuana possession offenses because they are caught outside of the State College Borough.  Decriminalization means that the city government entity has created a civil, ordinance violation that is used instead of the misdemeanor or felony drug possession charges.  If marijuana were decriminalized, then it would not be an offense at all across the state of Pennsylvania.

Expunging Marijuana Convictions

Aside from legalizing marijuana, the Attorney General also tweeted that he would support the expungement of non-violent marijuana use convictions.  An expungement destroys records of an incident from court and other government files.  Expunged files would not appear on criminal background searches conducted by employers, and the expunged files would not be available to be considered by law enforcement or judges if the person got into legal trouble in the future.

I am sure that people with felony marijuana convictions for delivery or possession with intent to deliver are hoping that the expungement would cover them as well.  However, the Attorney General’s tweet expressly referenced “use” convictions.  Use convictions would appear to limit the expungement of marijuana convictions to misdemeanor possession offenses and not the felony cases.  The difference between felony and misdemeanor marijuana charges is generally based upon whether the person possessed with the intent to use the drugs personally or possessed with the intent to distribute.  Under current Pennsylvania, a person may be eligible to seek an Order for Limited Access or seal a misdemeanor marijuana conviction, but a person cannot seal or expunge a felony conviction in Pennsylvania.  The only option to remove a felony conviction is to obtain a pardon, and after a pardoned is received, a person can then seek an expungement of the pardoned charge.

Impact of Marijuana Legalization Recommendation

If the Attorney General’s proposal for legalization of marijuana was adopted, marijuana would likely be treated similar to alcohol.  The state would impose heavily taxes on the sale of marijuana.  While the Attorney General’s recommendation makes sense, the prosecutor is required to enforce the laws that exist and is not permitted to change the laws.  Regrettably, Pennsylvanians must rely on the legislature to heed the recommendation and actually change Pennsylvania law before marijuana can be legalized.  It took many years for a medicinal marijuana law to pass, so I am not overly optimistic that a law legalizing recreational marijuana use in Pennsylvania will be passed any time soon.  Also, marijuana possession is still illegal under Federal law.  Despite the fact that many states have medical marijuana laws, and some states have legalized marijuana use, the U.S. Congress has failed to repeal laws that criminalize marijuana use.