Civic leaders in the borough of Steelton, Pennsylvania unanimously passed an ordinance to decriminalize possession of small quantities of marijuana on Tuesday evening. At a special meeting called to considerer the proposal, members of the borough council voted 5-0 to remove criminal penalties for first-time offenders possessing less than 30 grams of cannabis. Simple possession will instead be charged as a summary offense and be subject to a fine of $25 to $100.
Brian Proctor, the president of the borough council, said in a press release that the town was actively pursuing cannabis reform.
“Steelton Borough Council recognizes the changes in attitudes towards marijuana nationally, at the state level, and locally, and strives to be at the forefront of progressive marijuana policy,” said Proctor. “We believe policy needs to change with the times. That includes taking a new look at marijuana, its potential to benefit our community, and realigning criminal justice policy to appropriately fit marijuana-related crimes.”
Borough Manager Doug Brown said that decriminalization is just one aspect of the community’s new approach to pot.
“The passage of this ordinance signals the progressive direction Steelton is taking related to marijuana both in terms of righting a social wrong and preparing the borough for economic opportunity,” Brown said. “Since 2012, other states have shown that marijuana policy can be implemented in a responsible and beneficial manner. Steelton does not have the luxury of being stuck in the past or thumbing its nose at changing times; our survival depends on what is happening now and in the future and that includes being a leader in progressive marijuana policy.”
Brown told High Times that after the vote, the members of the public who attended the meeting clearly demonstrated their approval of the action taken by the council.
“They were applauding when we passed it,” he said. “It was clear that the room was overwhelmingly supportive.”
Town Looks for New Opportunities with Cannabis
Councilwoman Keontay Hodge, the author of the decriminalization ordinance, said that legal cannabis can be an opportunity for business development in the economically depressed community and noted that prohibition is not enforced fairly.
“The burgeoning marijuana industry is critical to rebuilding Steelton’s economy,” Hodge said. “It is foolish and foolhardy to stick our heads in the sand while this opportunity passes us by. It is equally foolish to ignore to [sic] disproportionate impact outdated marijuana laws have on small-time users.”
Brown agreed in a telephone interview that city leaders have a dual interest in cannabis policy reform.
“We all have a socially progressive mind but there’s also the economic development opportunity,” he said.
Brown explained that the community needs to find alternatives to the steel mill that’s been the primary employer for generations in Steelton.
“It’s in our name,” he said. “We were founded on the steel mill. And obviously times have changed, and with the decline of the steel mill came the decline of the town. So we’re in a spot right now where we really have to figure out what our niche is in our area and our region.”
Once employing thousands, the mill is down to about 500 workers today and is subject to recurring rumors of an imminent buyout or closure.
“There’s no clear picture of what the future holds for them,” Brown said. “So we’re in a mode now where we have to diversify. And we have to figure out what the new Steelton is and what the Steelton of the future is, and obviously, we see where the trend is going with cannabis.”
In 2016, Steelton was one of the first communities to pass a medical marijuana zoning ordinance after Pennsylvania legalized the medicinal use of cannabis. The town is now home to a RISE dispensary and has formed a committee to explore its options for the expected state legalization of recreational marijuana. The borough council has also formed a special committee and tasked it with studying the implementation of legal cannabis in other jurisdictions and to follow efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania.
“What we would like to do is to have an ordinance ready to go for when the state gets to the point that it’s ready to pull the trigger on recreational,” said Brown.
Steelton has already experienced how legal cannabis companies can spur further economic development. After the opening of the medical marijuana dispensary, Coexist Gallery, a glassblowing shop, opened nearby. This July, the company will be hosting residencies for nationally and internationally known artists to create and sell one of a kind pipes and dab rigs, with some proceeds going to fund a community art foundation.
“It’s cool to see the spin-off economy that’s growing from it, as well as the community aspect where we have new stakeholders investing in the borough, all because of our progressive attitude toward marijuana,” Brown told High Times.