With the city of Philadelphia decriminalizing the possession of a small amount of marijuana last year, and the general direction towards legalizing marijuana across the nation, you may be confused on the law and what exactly you may still be charged with if found in possession of marijuana.

First and foremost, you need to understand that marijuana is still a controlled substance in Pennsylvania and until the time that Pennsylvania chooses to fully legalize its use, if ever, if you are found in possession of weed in Pennsylvania, you can still be charged with a number of potential offenses.  That being said, the PA drug possession laws essentially have three different charges when it comes to the possession of marijuana: possession of a small amount of marijuana, simple possession, and possession with intent to deliver.  The focus of this article with be on the first two and the practical differences between them, as well as providing a brief summary of a recent case differentiating the two offenses.

Simple PA Drug Possession

Under the Controlled Substance, Drug Device and Cosmetic Act, 35 P.S. §780-113 (a)(16), no person may knowingly possess a controlled substance without a lawful prescription from a doctor.  As you may be aware, marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning that it is classified in the highest grade of addictiveness and potential abuse. This offense is typically charged if you are found carrying marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, or other illegal narcotics; however, possession charges are possible for certain legally available drugs (i.e., prescription medications) if they are possessed without a proper prescription

With respect to marijuana specifically, this offense is usually charged if you are in possession of a larger amount of marijuana for your own, personal use (not for distribution), or potentially even if you are found with a smaller amount of marijuana (which could fall under “possession of a small amount of marijuana”) if the police officer so chooses; a situation that is specifically addressed in the case study below.

If you are convicted of simple possession for the first time, it results in a misdemeanor charge, up to 1 year in jail, up to a $5,000.00 fine, or both.  Subsequent offenses result in up to 3 years in jail, up to a $25,000.00 fine, or both.

Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana

While simple possession is the broader offense for the possession of controlled substances, including marijuana, the Controlled Substance, Drug Device and Cosmetic Act, 35 P.S. §780-113 (a)(31) provides a very specific offense regarding the possession of a small amount of marijuana; that is, possession of 30 grams or less.

It appears that the PA drug possession laws already account for the fact that marijuana possession is effectively a lower-level offense and has created this unique offense that has lower penalties than simple possession.  If you are convicted of possession of a small amount of marijuana, it too results in a misdemeanor charge, but only up to 30 days in jail, up to a $500.00 fine, or both.  The case summary below is a perfect example of how courts in Pennsylvania continue to handle the difference between these two possession offenses and how criminal defense attorneys can use such cases to ensure that you are not inappropriately charged with offenses when lesser ones are available.

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Christopher Tisdale

On July 29, 2014, the Defendant, Christopher Tisdale, appealed a lower court conviction for possession of a controlled substance, arguing that it was an improper conviction and he should have been charged and convicted of possession of a small amount of marijuana.

The Defendant was originally arrested for being in possession of 12 small containers of marijuana, each containing .72 grams (totaling 8.64 grams).  He was initially acquitted of possession with intent to deliver, but was convicted of simple possession, to which he appealed.

In reviewing the case, the Pennsylvania Superior Court was clear in its decision that the purpose of the different offenses was to allow those minor offenders the opportunity to be charged with the lower offense.  Even though Mr. Tisdale wasn’t originally charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana, “it is the policy of the law not to permit prosecutions under the general provisions of the penal code when there are applicable special provisions available,” the Court stated. The Court focused on the “legislative intent” in creating a graduated system of penalties for possession of marijuana and overturned his conviction for simple possession and directed the lower court to find him guilty of possession of a small amount of marijuana instead.

The Martin Law Firm | PA Drug Possession

Aside from the legal differences in the above offenses, the practical difference between the two drug possession charges discussed above is huge.  While still a serious offense, having a conviction for a small amount of marijuana on your record is likely to be viewed as a minor infraction by future employers or school admission boards, for example, since many states are completely legalizing its possession and there are even counties within the state you were convicted that have decriminalized it.  This is much different than having a conviction for drug possession on your record, which does not automatically clarify that it was for marijuana.  Anyone doing a background check can see a conviction for drug possession and make any assumptions that they wish, whether it be marijuana, cocaine, heroin, prescription drugs, etc.  Some may even be aware that a lower offense exists for a small amount of marijuana, so the fact that you were convicted for something greater indicates that it was not something so innocuous as marijuana possession.

The lawyers at The Martin Law Firm routinely handle drug possession cases and keep up to date with current changes in the law.  Our attorneys can be reached at 215-646-3980 or contact our experienced PA Drug Possession attorneys for more information regarding a other criminal charges and offenses.