Marijuana meant freedom to Dave Wymard before it meant incarceration.

Wymard, 57, of North Union Township, said the side effects from the drugs he was prescribed for being a “rambunctious” child made him “ready to kill everybody.”

Wymard considers himself lucky for finding a couple of guys in the neighborhood that had just come home from Vietnam who were smoking weed.

“It helped me get through life, period,” Wymard said. “It helped me to walk through life without pharmaceuticals.”

But when Wymard walks today, he wears an ankle monitor.

He started house arrest last month after pleading guilty to marijuana-related charges, including possession with intent to manufacture or deliver, a felony.

He’ll lose his driver’s license next month, which will hamper his ability to work as a contractor, and in turn, his ability to pay the $450 monthly cost of his monitoring bracelet.

“You might as well just throw me in jail,” Wymard said.

He’s been there too, a federal prisoner in the ’90s after pleading guilty to possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

“They put me in a cage,” Wymard said. “… And they don’t rehabilitate anybody.”

Reform advocates argue that marijuana laws transform law-abiding citizens into criminals who must endure a lifetime of financial repercussions and limited opportunities.

Employers can look up what charges job applicants have faced online in “two seconds,” observed Shane Gannon, an assistant public defender in Fayette County and criminal defense attorney with Watson Mundorff & Sepic in Dunbar Township.

“A lot of my clients, when I tell them about it, it’s a new thing to them,” Gannon said. “(T)hey didn’t know that if a charge is dismissed or changed, it’s going to stay there.”

Patrick Nightingale, executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), said defendants often aren’t aware of expungement procedures and filing fees, which cost a minimum of $132 per county, and are sometimes prohibitive for would-be petitioners.

A 2014 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development memo stated that lease termination for use of marijuana is at the discretion of public housing agencies or owners but that every agency or owner must have a policy that allows them to terminate the lease of a marijuana user.

Eligibility for federal student aid might be suspended if an offense resulting in a drug conviction occurred while receiving such aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

While the legal consequences for cannabis-related crimes are often much less severe than Wymard’s, they can still be daunting.

In Pennsylvania, possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by 30 days in jail. Possession of more than 30 grams is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of six to 12 months incarceration. Growing marijuana is a felony and can yield years behind bars.

Thirteen states where marijuana is not legalized for recreational use have decriminalized it in small amounts, and 10 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use.

Pennsylvania joining either of those groups would have a disproportionately significant impact locally.

State police in Uniontown made more arrests for marijuana possession (864) than stations in Belle Vernon, Pittsburgh, Washington and Waynesburg combined from 2014 through 2018, according to the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System. Marijuana possession arrests out of those five stations increased more than 200 percent from 2014 to 2018, including just under 60 percent from 2017 to 2018 alone.

In the first two months of 2018 alone, there were 55 cases that included a marijuana possession charge in Fayette County. Of those 55, 44 included charges waived or held for Common Pleas Court. Four were withdrawn and seven had undetermined resolutions.

Gannon said defense attorneys were previously able to work possession of a small amount of marijuana charges to a summary offense for which defendants pay a fine.

“More recently, the district attorney’s office has been more vigilant in prosecuting these crimes, and they won’t reduce it to a summary offense,” Gannon said.

In contrast, of the 67 cases that included a marijuana possession charge in Washington County in January and February 2018, 27 were dismissed or withdrawn and changed to a disorderly conduct nontraffic citation or dismissed or withdrawn totally. Charges were sent to Common Pleas Court for 39. One case remains unresolved.

Decriminalization is under consideration in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, where a proposed Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, and Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll Township, would reduce possession of small amounts of cannabis to a summary offense.

Bartolotta decried what she sees as unnecessary expenses stemming from throwing people in jail for small amounts of marijuana.

“That is a huge waste of taxpayer dollars,” Bartolotta said.

Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Bullskin Township, chairs the Law and Justice Committee that oversees marijuana legislation and said he could be open to decriminalizing marijuana if doing so was limited to just possession.

Stefano said he “could be supportive of” retroactive expungement for those who had committed nonviolent marijuana crimes not involving distribution, although he added that that would have to be done on a case-by-case basis.

Bartolotta, who is co-chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said she would have to look at that option “a little bit more closely” and that those who commit crimes should pay the penalty for them, though she added that she was also “all for a clean slate.”

“I don’t think making something legal retroactively is something we’re keen on doing in the General Assembly,” Bartolotta said.

At least 10 states have passed laws addressing expungement of certain marijuana convictions in the past four years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

If legalization occurs, Gannon expects a lot more DUIs depending on how they are addressed in legislation, and a lot more people selling marijuana without a license.

“I personally think that my business as a criminal defense attorney will go up if they legalize it,” Gannon said.

"Budding Dilemma" is a collaborative partnership between the Observer-Reporter and the Herald-Standard to explore recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania. The three-part series will investigate public opinions, legislative possibilities, influence on crime, and potential business impacts.

Budding Dilemma
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