The Bethlehem city council is seeking to lessen the penalties for marijuana possession.
An ordinance proposed by Councilwoman Olga Negron is intended to provide fairer, more proportionate consequences compared to other drug violations.
“Marijuana does not belong in the same level that cocaine and harder drugs are included in,” Negron said. “I believe we should be legalizing it and taxing it. It will change the opioid problem that we have and lessen the killing and the drug dealing and the gangs.”
Marijuana’s federal status as a Class I drug, despite its growing presence in American society, was also a motivation behind the proposal.
“There’s a sea of change going on nationally, and eventually we’ll see decriminalization nationwide,” councilman Adam Waldron said. “I think the city is wasting some resources enforcing the current law on marijuana.”
The proposed ordinance follows similar decriminalization efforts that succeeded in other Pennsylvania cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.
Still, the process of turning the proposal into law could be complicated.
Waldron said the biggest point of contention is that Bethlehem — because part of the city lies in Northampton County and the other in Lehigh County — has two district attorneys with different opinions on the matter.
Waldron said the DA of Northampton County decided to leave the issue to the municipalities, meanwhile the Lehigh County DA has said the proposal would be unconstitutional under Pennsylvania law.
“The Lehigh County DA has written a formal memo threatening the police chief for obstruction of justice for not following state law,” Waldron said. “In theory, there is unanimous support for the ordinance (on the city council).”
Councilman Michael Colon, the chairman of Bethlehem’s public safety committee, said if the ordinance is passed, it would create a situation the city has not yet seen.
“This contradiction between the two DAs is rather unusual,” Colon said. “There are other examples of operational stuff that the police have to do differently in the two counties, but I can’t think of an example like this where the actual law is different.”
Negron said opposition of the proposal is rooted in marijuana being a “political item.”
But Colon, although in support of the legislation, can see why some residents may have reservations.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if people came forward against it for young children, and there will be some merit in people’s points,” Colon said. “We don’t want to see young people taking this as a free pass. I don’t want minors and children to take anything that alters perception and judgment. And there is always a concern of driving under the influence.”
Colon said driving while impaired, smoking marijuana in public and behaving recklessly would not be made legal under the ordinance.
The ordinance will be discussed and voted on in a public safety committee meeting on May 22 at 6 p.m. Colon said the meeting is open to the public and both DAs have been invited to attend.
Colon said the proposal will be rejected, amended or passed with at least a two-thirds majority vote at the meeting.
Then, for the proposal to become law, four out of seven council members must pass the legislation twice at the following two council meetings.
Neither Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez nor Bethlehem Police Chief Mark DiLuzio have formally given their opinions on the matter. Colon said he thought both officials would be heavily concerned with the different stances of the DAs.
In Colon’s eyes, the ordinance would simply be an act of common sense.
“Marijuana has been a staple of American culture for decades, and I think it’s a known fact that people use marijuana,” Colon said. “I wouldn’t consider these people criminals.”
Colon said he does not, however, support young people impairing themselves or their judgment.
“This is about people that are responsible,” Colon said.
Negron said she is more concerned with tobacco use and alcohol consumption, which can lead to addiction and other major diseases, rather than marijuana, which is not as harmful and can be used for medical purposes.
“More and more often, I hear stories of individuals who got stopped with a broken tail light or their inspection has expired and for people possessing marijuana, it automatically becomes a bigger crime,” Negron said. “The offense has a record that will carry forever and could prohibit him or her from getting a scholarship in the future or, even worse, a job.”