- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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SHOULD PENNSYLVANIA JOIN STATES DECRIMINALIZING POT?

If police caught you carrying a marijuana cigarette in Washington, D.C., last Wednesday, chances are you would have been arrested, fingerprinted and perhaps jailed.

If you had been stopped for the same offense the next day, you would have been given a $25 ticket. Thursday was the day the nation’s capital joined 16 states by decriminalizing marijuana.

Decriminalization is not the same as legalization. Decriminalization means reducing the penalties for possession, not doing away with them. In most cases, it makes possession of small amounts of marijuana a misdemeanor and imposes a fine.

While Pennsylvania is rarely at the forefront when it comes to liberalizing laws involving controlled substances, decriminalization has been discussed in the Legislature - and even approved by Philadelphia City Council, although Mayor Michael Nutter has yet to decide whether to sign the statute.

Since June 2010, Philadelphia has treated possession of up to an ounce of marijuana as a summary offense punishable with a $200 fine and a three-hour class on drug abuse.

Under the new statute, Philadelphians caught with up to an ounce (30 grams) of marijuana would not be arrested. After they paid a $25 fine, they’d have the charge expunged from their record. The marijuana likely would be confiscated.

That is similar to laws in Washington, D.C., New York state and Ohio.

The D.C. law removes all criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce. Those stopped for possession are given a ticket - a civil fine - for $25. Nor are police allowed to search people just because they can smell marijuana. However, smoking marijuana in public or possessing large amounts of marijuana remains a felony.

Maryland will soon join the fold. Gov. Martin O’Malley signed legislation in April that is slated to take effect on Oct. 1. That will impose civil fines on those who possess less than 10 grams of marijuana.

An argument against decriminalization is that it will lead to increased use. But a host of studies dispute that.

And while states have decriminalized marijuana, it remains illegal under federal law. In Washington, D.C., police might ticket people with marijuana, but federal authorities can still make arrests.

Advocates make a good case for decriminalization. It removes the consumer from the criminal justice system, while maintaining criminal penalties against those who sell or traffic large quantities of the drug. It keeps nonviolent people out of jail and reduces court and incarceration costs.

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