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In The PA House, Baby Steps Toward Lower Marijuana Penalties

HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) -- A measure that would reduce penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana has passed out of a House committee.

It almost certainly won't get through the full legislature before the session ends next month--but its backers still see this as an important step forward.

When House Bill 928 was first introduced last session, it didn't even get a committee vote. This session, it sailed through the House Judiciary Committee 19 to 5.

Sponsor Barry Jozwiak, a Berks County Republican, is banking on even better results when he brings it back next session.

"It's a struggle, quite frankly," he said. "People have to be explained what this means and what it does, and after they hear it, it makes sense to them."

Under current law, low-grade pot possession is a misdemeanor that can merit 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. It also requires driver's license suspension and prosecution by a district attorney.

Jozwiak's bill would turn it into a summary offense, shrinking the fine, axing the jail time, and getting rid of license suspensions for first and second infractions.

A number of Pennsylvania cities--including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and State College--have passed similar measures.

It does have detractors, like Jerry Knowles--also a Berks Republican. In committee debate, he told Jozwiak the bill constituted "watering down the law. "

Jozwiak doesn't see it that way, however.

He argued, the bill is fundamentally a way for police to save money.

"It's costing taxpayers millions and millions of dollars--tens of millions of dollars--to collect minor fines," he said.

Major law enforcement groups like the Fraternal Order of Police and State Troopers Association have said they support the bill.