Should Pennsylvania legalize medical and recreational marijuana?

Over the last several years, public opinion regarding marijuana use has changed significantly. Eighteen states now allow their residents to legally use marijuana for medicinal purposes and two even permit the use of marijuana as a recreational drug.

If marijuana advocates have their way, Pennsylvania might soon join this crowd. The state legislature is currently considering a bill that would legalize the use of medicinal marijuana. In addition, in April, state legislators introduced a bill that would also legalize recreational marijuana. The recreational legalization bill would regulate marijuana much in the same way that the state already regulates alcohol. If the bill becomes law, Pennsylvanians over age 21 would be able to legally purchase marijuana in state-operated retail stores.

Supporters of the bill say that public opinion is changing rapidly, and it is only a matter of time before most people believe that marijuana should be fully legalized. In addition, they argue that the state should not prohibit people from using a substance that most experts agree is less dangerous and less addictive than both alcohol and tobacco.

Supporters also say that legalization will put a halt to the disruptive effects of marijuana criminalization. Data from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting system shows that there were more than 26,000 marijuana arrests in Pennsylvania in 2011 alone. Marijuana convictions can cause significant disruption in people's lives, even for those who are ultimately able to avoid jail time.

Prosecuting marijuana crimes is also costly. The Philadelphia Weekly recently reported that the state spends more than $300 million every year prosecuting suspected marijuana offenders.

Pennsylvania marijuana penalties

Despite the changing societal attitudes, convictions for the possession, sale or cultivation of marijuana in Pennsylvania still carry significant penalties.

Possession of 30 grams of marijuana or less - a little more than an ounce - is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of $500. Possession of anything more than that can be punished by up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of $5,000. The penalties may be even stricter for repeat offenses.

The penalties for sale and cultivation are much higher. Selling between two and 10 pounds of marijuana or growing between 10 and 21 plants is a felony that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison. A conviction for selling between 10 and 50 pounds or growing between 22 and 51 plants carries a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison. The penalties continue to increase as the quantities grow larger.

In addition, any drug conviction can make it difficult to get a job or professional license or to qualify for many types of student financial aid. Because of this, it is important to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney if you or a loved one has been charged with a marijuana crime.