Marijuana one step closer to being legal
Decriminalizing marijuana is firmly on the agenda for the next meeting of Bethlehem City Council ,as members unanimously approved the measure in their first reading. This procedure ensures that the ordinance will get a final vote and approval at the next scheduled regular meeting June 19.
All members of council expressed support of the ordinance to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. A small amount is defined as “thirty grams or less of marijuana or eight grams or less of hashish.”
Councilman Brian Callahan spoke movingly about how marijuana had eased his late wife’s suffering during her terminal illness with cancer. He said he is 100 percent in favor of the measure.
Several citizens spoke in favor of the ordinance. Among those as Eric Miller of Allentown who thought passage of the ordinance by Bethlehem would help send a message to Harrisburg; a message echoed by Councilwoman Olga Negròn.
Councilwoman Dr. Paige Van Wirt signaled her support by saying marijuana is a “better remedy for chronic pain.”
Councilman Adam Waldron said, “In the future, it will seem laughable that marijuana was illegal.”
Council members Olga Negròn and Michael Colon are sponsoring the ordinance.
Jeff Riedy, executive director of Lehigh Valley NORML, reading from prepared comments, said, “Look, I’ll be the first to admit that local decriminalization ordinances are FAR from the best solution to our tired, antiquated laws, but they are a first step in encouraging our state lawmakers to listen to their constituents. And as we change state laws, maybe our legislators in Washington will begin to take notice and follow the will of the people. As America’s history continues to be written, small efforts by small communities often lead to bigger solutions. And in the end, it is courageous moves like those being taken by city council tonight, that will move the dialogue.”
Resident Ed Gallagher played devil’s advocate to put some opposing reasons up for discussion. “This is the wrong message in a time of an opioid crisis,” he said.
The law will only affect that portion of Bethlehem that is in Northampton County where District Attorney Morganelli supports the measure.
Residents in the Lehigh County section of the city of Bethlehem will not be subject to the new law because Lehigh County District Attorney James Martin doesn’t support the initiative.
This jurisdictional anomaly is the result of the 1904 merger of the former borough of West Bethlehem in Lehigh County with the city of Bethlehem in Northampton County.
The new law affects only Bethlehem residents and visitors in Northampton County’s part of the city.
The penalty for a first violation for possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use is slated to be $25.
Violations of the ordinance will be considered summary offenses, the most minor type of criminal offense in Pa. Summary offense convictions usually result in a fine. Any fines collected under the ordinance are earmarked for Bethlehem’s Parks and Recreation Department for various youth sports programs and the Bethlehem Police Department to support community engagement projects or events.
In other business, City Council President Adam Waldron presented a citation lauding the exemplary service of Police Officer Stacy Harrison, who has retired after 20 years on the Bethlehem police force. He served from July 15, 1998 to April 1, 2018.
Council also conducted a public hearing on a request to rezone property owned by Skyline West, LLC, which is associated with Musikfest founder Jeff Parks. Parks wants the property to be zoned from Institutional District to a Limited Commercial District. Such a move will facilitate Park’s plan to develop the property between Conestoga Road and Route 378, the expressway leading from Route 22 to downtown Bethlehem.
Parks told council that he plans to put “up to 50 apartments” on the property. Responding to Van Wirt’s concern of preserving trees on the property, he said, “Trees are paramount. We are telling clients that you will feel like you’re in the country.”
Resident Roland Plante expressed concerns about traffic increases on Conestoga Road that may be caused by development. “Conestoga is like a raceway now,” he said.
In the course of the public comments, Councilman Bryan Callahan seemed to signal his support for development of the property by praising Parks – who was in the audience – as one who “saved the city” with his successful enterprise MusikFest. “There are very few people I respect more than you,” said Callahan.