Lebanon County District Attorney David J. Arnold, Jr. is changing the way his office handles some charges for possessing small amounts of marijuana for personal use.
In an announcement sent to Lebanon County attorneys on July 8, Arnold said those caught with small amounts of marijuana for their personal use may be eligible for the Accelerated Rehabilitation Program, commonly known as ARD, even if they have criminal records or have recently been on ARD.
The ARD program allows defendants to avoid a conviction and a criminal record. Defendants accepted into the program are put on probation without pleading guilty. If they complete all requirements, the charges are dismissed at the end. In many cases, court records of the charge can be sealed or erased.
Pennsylvania law defines a “small amount” of marijuana as 30 grams or less, about an ounce. A conviction carries a possible jail sentence of up to 30 days, and a maximum $500 fine.
Traditionally, Lebanon County defendants have not received jail sentences for such offenses unless they already had lengthy criminal records, endangered other people, or had serious related charges.
Even so, an admission or a finding of guilt for possessing even small amounts of cannabis, a misdemeanor, results in a criminal record, which can jeopardize employment and educational opportunities.
Arnold estimated that his office handled about 300 possession of small amount of marijuana prosecutions in 2018.
A judge decides who gets ARD, but district attorneys are the program’s gatekeepers. The law gives them wide latitude to set policies for who gets recommended and who doesn’t.
Until his recent announcement, Arnold had applied a “look-back period” to ARD applications for marijuana, rejecting applicants who had been on ARD within a specified previous period. Arnold’s action eliminated the look-back period.
In an email to LebTown, Arnold was clear that he does not favor legalization of marijuana.
“I think the bottom line for me is this: I DO NOT support legalization of recreational marijuana,” he wrote. “However, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association would support legislation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and I agree with that position.
“Our policy is designed to continue to enforce the law, require a person to address any substance abuse issues that he/she may have (if any), and ensure personal accountability by the offender, but also allow a person to avoid a criminal conviction that may impede his or her ability to obtain/maintain gainful employment.”