Morgantown City Council will vote next month on an ordinance that says that any person who possesses cases of less than 15 grams of marijuana will be presented with a $15 fine and will not be penalized by imprisonment.
Amending the penalty provisions for the crime of possession of small amounts of marijuana was discussed in a Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday.
“This clarifies the limits as to what we can and can’t do,” said Rachel Fetty, deputy mayor. “We do not have the ability to decriminalize marijuana, but we have the ability to modify sanctions or penalties. We do not have the option to modify penalties that might be imposed by a state entity.”
The penalty for marijuana possession in state law is a prison sentence of 90 days to six months and a fine of up to $1,000 for a first offense, according to the West Virginia Code.
Barry Wendell, councilman, said he was opposed to the proposal.
“It’s easy for us to say we want this, but the West Virginia University administration has come out against it,” Wendell said in the email to WVU’s Student Government Association. “If we were to do this, and convince the Morgantown Police Department to not arrest people for marijuana, that would still leave open the possibility that, in the city, one could be arrested by WVU Police, Mon County Sheriff, or the State Police. I don’t want to give anyone a false sense of security.”
The WVU Student Government Association passed a resolution, in response to this Morgantown ordinance, to support Morgantown cannabis decriminalization.
Ed Preston, Morgantown police chief, voiced his concern that an officer’s current ability to decide whether a case should be prosecuted in state or municipal court, known formally as officer discretion, would be revoked by the change.
“I don’t often make ultimatums, but if you do this [take away officer discretion], I will quit,” Preston said.
Alternatively, Preston suggested simply removing the drug ordinance entirely and giving officers full discretion to issue citations, as they currently do.
This ordinance would not change penalties given by state or county law enforcement.
“I don’t want you or anybody else to come away from this meeting tonight thinking that, should this pass, police officers are going to start issuing municipal citations,” Preston said. “It’s probably not going to happen.”
Council members Zackery Cruze and Ryan Simonton said that officer discretion is not going anywhere.
“Before presenting this to council, I spoke with the police chief to ensure that he would not object to the introduction of the ordinance and that officers would have the discretion to charge this crime with this associated penalty in municipal court,” Simonton said. “The officers are the ones who would make that initial decision whether or not to charge under city code.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, many Morgantown residents expressed their support for the ordinance. One woman even came forth with a petition featuring hundreds of signatures and supportive comments for the ordinance.
“As someone from [the legal] profession and working with individuals who are criminalized because of possession or use of a drug that is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol, I could make a financial pitch to you,” said Robb Livingood, a lawyer from Monongalia County. “The moment that I walk on a case, it’s going to be at least two or three thousand bucks, and that doesn’t include the expenses the police force is using on criminalization. It’s a few thousand dollars of police resources. To jail someone in North Central, it’s well over fifty dollars per day.”
Council moved to place the ordinance on the Feb. 4 regular meeting agenda for a vote.