Small amount of marijuana cases on the rise in Somerset County

March 21, 2019 GMT

As the debate continues across the state about legalizing recreational marijuana, petty pot cases in Somerset County are on the rise.

These cases have been getting more attention since Lt. Gov. John Fetterman started a 67-county listening tour to gather input on whether Pennsylvanians would be in favor of legalizing the drug for recreational use. Marijuana is already allowed for medical use in the state but is strictly regulated.

“It’s deeply concerning to consider the amount of resources that have been devoted to prosecuting and incarcerating people for marijuana-related offenses, particularly when we know people of color are disproportionately incarcerated,” Fetterman said. “When people are sent to jail for any offense, their families are sentenced along with them to financial and social hardships that endure long after their release. Decriminalization will end a tired, expensive and obviously biased cycle of incarceration that prevents people from reaching their potential as productive citizens.”

Fetterman was in Boswell March 7 to hear public opinion on the matter. He didn’t offer his opinion on legalization at that time.

“My views aren’t interesting,” he said. “What’s interesting are the views of everyone here tonight.”

Somerset County District Attorney Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser said she has seen an increase in cases involving the possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use. A small amount is considered 30 grams or less. She said there has also been an increase in impaired-driving cases involving THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main active ingredient of marijuana.

“What’s happening is when there is a traffic stop and there is marijuana in the car or smoked shortly before a stop, that is a reason for the officer to have probable-cause for impaired driving,” she said.

She said the potency of marijuana has changed over the years.

“You can smell it whether it is being smoked or not,” she said later adding, “It’s very pungent, easier to detect.”

Lazzari-Strasiser said the small amount of marijuana charge has a 30-day maximum sentence. and of the approximately 128 cases filed in Somerset County in 2018 that included the charge, 39 included the charge as the only or highest-ranking offense.

“Since I’ve been here no one has been sentenced to jail for possession of a small amount of marijuana if that was the singular charge with no other prior history,” she said.

She said she believes young people are using marijuana at a greater rate.

“But on the other hand DUIs that we are getting are not restricted to 18- to 25-year-olds,” she said. “We are having this age go all the way up to 55 to 60.”

Lazzari-Strasiser said the charge often allows law enforcement to get someone help.

“If the circumstances present themselves to help a young person recognize that number one, this is a health risk and number two, this can change the course of my life because it is still a criminal offense, we will,” she said. “At that point we can force an evaluation to give them an insight to their decision-making and connect them to the recovery community, to understand and educate themselves on the consequences of continued use.”

Lazzari-Strasiser said that personally she feels strongly about educating people about the risks of adolescents being exposed to THC and the impact it has on their development.

“The younger that they use it, the more likely they are to try a wider range of controlled substances,” she said.