Some Lebanon County defendants charged with minor marijuana offenses will soon have a chance to get them reduced to the equivalent of a traffic ticket and avoid a criminal record, according to District Attorney Pier Hess Graf.

Hess Graf announced on Dec. 21 that those charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana (less than 30 grams under Pennsylvania law) or possession of marijuana paraphernalia (pipes, papers, etc.) may be able to have those charges reduced to disorderly conduct, avoiding a criminal record, if they complete an educational program and other requirements.

Defendants with a prior criminal record who are charged those offenses will not be disqualified if they meet all other requirements.

Pennsylvania law makes possession of a small amount of marijuana an “ungraded misdemeanor,” a minor criminal offense. A conviction carries a fine of up to $500 and up to 30 days in jail.

Pennsylvania drug law is notable for making possession of paraphernalia a third-degree misdemeanor – more serious than possessing marijuana itself – allowing up to a $2,500 fine and one year in jail.

Defendants convicted of either offense rarely go to jail unless they have criminal records or are simultaneously charged with more serious offenses.

However, even without a jail sentence, convictions of either result in a criminal record that can harm the offender’s employment and educational prospects.

Disorderly conduct, on the other hand, is a summary offense if the defendant does not intend to cause “substantial harm or serious inconvenience.”  

Summary offense convictions do not result in a misdemeanor criminal record, but allow fines of up to $300 and a rarely imposed maximum 90-day jail sentence. Hess Graf said that Lebanon County judges have agreed to only give fines to eligible defendants.

A practical change

Hess Graf told LebTown that her reasons for the change are practical.

“It’s really about trying to use taxpayer, court, and law enforcement resources in the most efficient, pragmatic way that helps the community as a whole,” she said.

“When we looked at the percentage of cases coming through . . . [small marijuana cases are] a decently high percentage,” she noted. “There are some months where they’re 20 to 30 percent of our caseload.”

Hess Graf also sees an important educational aspect to the new program, citing a widespread ignorance of Pennsylvania law when it comes to driving with marijuana in one’s system, even if one has a medical marijuana card.

“We have some defendants who don’t understand that, even if you have a medical marijuana card, you can’t drive a car if you have THC [the active ingredient in marijuana] in your system,” Hess Graf said.

The required half-day educational program will be taught by Hess Graf, her first assistant, Nichole Eisenhart, and local osteopathic physician Dr. Jeffrey Yocum. After completion, defendants will go immediately to a courtroom where a judge will accept their summary guilty plea and set the fine.

At that point, Hess Graf said, the prosecution will be over.

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Chris Coyle writes primarily on government, the courts, and business. He retired as an attorney at the end of 2018, after concentrating for nearly four decades on civil and criminal litigation and trials. A career highlight was successfully defending a retired Pennsylvania state trooper who was accused,...