Bethlehem became the eighth Pennsylvania municipality to decriminalize marijuana after a months-long process, which culminated in the city council’s unanimous vote on an ordinance passed June 19.
The ordinance significantly reduces the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana, making the violation a summary offense rather than a misdemeanor. It also allows police officers to cite offenders as they would for a summary offense without formal court processing.
Although all council members voted in favor of the ordinance, not all local officials are on board. Because Bethlehem is split between both Northampton and Lehigh counties, two district attorneys serve the city, and it just so happens that they feel differently about the ordinance.
“Mr. Martin is opposed to decriminalization on a local level because state law preempts the field and controls,” read a statement from Lehigh County DA Jim Martin’s office. “Therefore, he has instructed local police in Lehigh County to enforce the law of the Commonwealth.”
Martin declined to comment further.
Northampton County DA John Morganelli has advocated for the decriminalization of marijuana at the state level, however, he has chosen not to take a stance on the Bethlehem ordinance.
“I don’t like to get involved in municipal government,” Morganelli said. “Local government is up to local officials, in this case, the Bethlehem city council. I didn’t feel the need to take positions on these issues one way or the other.”
The disagreement between the two DAs has Bethlehem Police Chief Mark DiLuzio juggling two different policies.
Martin has ordered that all marijuana-related crimes be processed as misdemeanors, as they were before the ordinance was passed. However, with no formal stance from Morganelli, DiLuzio has instructed officers in the Northampton area of Bethlehem to use their discretion when it comes to marijuana-related crimes.
DiLuzio said officers should evaluate each situation and consider the amount of marijuana in possession when determining if a charge is a summary offense or misdemeanor.
“We want to enforce this in the fairest way possible,” DiLuzio said. “I kind of feel like King Solomon from the Bible splitting our city down the middle. It shouldn’t be this way and it’s really up to the state to act.”
DiLuzio said there were between 162 and 182 marijuana-related arrests last year, and with 155 police officers on staff, he said the city isn’t “jumping on people’s backs for smoking weed.”
He said he has not noticed a major change in marijuana use since the ordinance was passed and believes most people use it privately.
Bethlehem Councilman Bryan Callahan said the city took action because the current laws simply weren’t working. He is supportive of marijuana legalization beyond Bethlehem’s decriminalization.
“If (the state) doesn’t legalize (marijuana), the same people will use it,” Callahan said. “If you want to use it, you’re still using it. The fact that it’s illegal is not changing minds. Just because it’s legalized, people won’t suddenly change their minds to smoke. People that are using it — let’s tax them and put that money into health care costs and educational costs.”
Since the ordinance was passed three months ago, Callahan said he has not been made aware of any increased public health or safety concerns and has only heard positive comments in conversations with city residents.
Though Morganelli doesn’t expect Bethlehem’s liberal stance on marijuana to expand throughout the entirety of Northampton County, he said there’s a growing consensus that marijuana possession is not a big deal.
“I don’t think it’s as bad as heroin or cocaine,” Morganelli said. “The goal (of the ordinance) is to not ruin someone’s life in regard to college loans or their futures with an arrest for something most folks today believe is not a big deal. The goal is to take out a group of cases from our criminal justice system.”
City Councilwoman Van Wirt said marijuana decriminalization is a social justice issue.
“I think that if you look at all of the data behind the people who get busted in our city and nationwide, it is disproportionately young and poor and minorities,” Van Wirt said. “The (number of) people who are getting arrested (is) disproportionate to the (number of) people who are actually using it, and it’s hurting them for the rest of their lives. We need to be appropriately using our judicial system and not inappropriately penalizing people who are getting busted.”
Van Wirt said the ordinance should be in place for at least a year before making any changes to determine how the city can improve.
She believes the ordinance was a step in the right direction, but she also recognizes why some Bethlehem residents might be concerned.
“We need to make sure a public information campaign is out there regarding the risks involved with smoking marijuana,” Van Wirt said. “We need to educate about the age of use and driving under the influence, so that our children aren’t exposed to marijuana. We need to have a conversation to explain the rules.”