The marijuana debate has galvanized the country and grabbed headlines in the last couple years, partially because of the large swing in public opinion and in state law.
Here in Centre County, the focus isn’t on legalization. It’s people potentially charged with felonies for sharing pot at a party; it’s about students forced to become informants after being threatened with years of prison; and it’s about the silence of the university’s student population, despite the large number of students affected by the law.
Currently two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized the use of marijuana for recreational purposes, and numerous others have legalized medical marijuana, and still more have legislation pending. But Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s views on the issue are clear.
“There’s no way recreational marijuana will happen in Pennsylvania for a very long time,” he said in an interview with pamatters.com. But polling data from multiple sources suggest that Corbett’s views are increasingly out of step with the rest of the nation, and even his own state.
An Oct. 2014 Gallup poll showed that 58 percent of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana, an increase of almost 10 points since 2012. A non-scientific PennLive.com poll found that 90 percent of Patriot-News readers supported the legalization of recreational marijuana.
And while the national polling firms haven’t focused on Centre County or State College, it may be possible to draw some conclusions about affected parties from national data. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that 22 percent of college students used some kind of illegal drug in 2012.
With those numbers, University Park’s population of 35,000 undergraduate students could make the university a hotbed of activism. But there are no chapters of marijuana legalization groups in the community. Out of over 800 clubs at Penn State’s University Park campus, not one is devoted to marijuana, medical or otherwise.
While the reasons for that are unclear, what is becoming public knowledge is the methods of prosecution of small-time marijuana users and dealers in State College.
Centre County’s Chief Public Defender David Crowley spoke to Voices about marijuana, the current state legislation, and prosecutorial practices affecting State College.
Crowley says that ordinarily, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in Pennsylvania would be charged with the least serious level of misdemeanor on the spectrum.
But in State College, charges can escalate fast.
“If you’re caught either selling or possessing with the intent to deliver or manufacturing or growing in something called a school zone, the penalties are horrific,” said Crowley. “Nobody has the slightest idea that a school zone means a felony.”
State law says that any piece of university property, high schools, elementary schools, various day cares, and any other educational facility licensed by the state all qualify as schools. The 1,000 feet around each property is defined as a “school zone” for the purposes of drug enforcement.
That makes the vast majority of State College a “school zone” for drug enforcement — including the main campus of the largest university in Pennsylvania.
Under Pennsylvania law, the distribution of small amounts of marijuana for no money ordinarily carries a maximum of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine — less than underage drinking, public drunkenness, or disorderly conduct.
But in most of State College and University Park, that same act — no matter how little drug is involved, and no matter how trivial the money — has the potential to become a felony carrying 2-4 years of prison time.
Crowley says that local courts have often held that “social distribution,” in which no money changes hands, ought to be handled as a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
The State Mandatory Minimums on drug laws were intended to keep drugs out of middle schools and high schools. But Crowley says that very few local cases actually deal with someone selling in schools. Crowley believes these laws are draconian. For someone caught outside of a school zone, how much marijuana does he believe warrants 2 to 4 years in prison?
“I would hope at least 50 lbs,” said Crowley. “[This is] somebody with a serious history of other offenses. Should we really be filling up prisons with college kids that made the mistake of selling a couple joints to somebody they thought was a friend?”
Crowley outlined the process for individuals facing a felony drug charge.
“The way it works in State College is you get caught selling a little weed, police bring you in, sit you down, they explain the facts of life to you, they probably tell you about the mandatory minimum sentence, they probably tell you about state prison, they probably tell you a lot of things to scare you,” he said.
“And they give you a ray of hope and that ray of hope is if you work with [the police] and agree to set up [a buy], through your friends or through your associates, [they’ll] let you plead to a misdemeanor and you won’t have a felony on your record,” he said.
“Never sell drugs,” said Crowley, “and never take money.”
In boroughs like State College, the state mandatory minimums can apply in what would seem like non-school related areas, like a duck pond, the Penn State golf courses, or a Philadelphian telephone pole with a basketball net tacked to it. Is that right?
And when will Pennsylvania join the rest of the country, more than half of which openly supports the decriminalization of marijuana?
In March 1998, Professor Emeritus Julian Heicklen and other protestors openly smoked marijuana in front of the Old Main gates in favor of decriminalizing the drug. In an article on stopthedrugwar.org, Heicklen said he “deemed it hypocritical to ‘glorify football as a religion’ while condemning marijua