Possession of Marijuana Overview
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- Pennsylvania Law versus Local Ordinances
Students are often surprised by how seriously marijuana is taken in State College. Some students come from states where marijuana has been legalized or decriminalized.
In Pennsylvania, marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance, and under state law, possession of marijuana for personal use is a criminal offense and is a misdemeanor. If an individual possesses marijuana with the intent to deliver, delivers, or grows/manufactures it, the maximum penalties and collateral consequences are much harsher. Those offenses are not discussed in this overview.
Some local municipal governments, including the Borough of State College, have adopted ordinances providing police officers discretion to file a less serious summary offense rather than a more serious misdemeanor charge under Pennsylvania law.
This overview provides general information about the Pennsylvania law and the State College Borough Ordinance. If you are charged with any of these offenses, you should talk to a lawyer to discuss your options. There is no substitute for getting legal advice tailored to the specific facts in your case.
- Pennsylvania Law – Definitions of Offenses
Pennsylvania has two possession charges for marijuana: (1) Simple Possession and (2) Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana.
Simple possession is when an individual possesses, for personal use, a controlled substance without a valid prescription. This offense is broad in the sense it includes all controlled substances as defined by the drug law. See 35 P.S. §§ 780-102, -104. This includes substances like heroin, cocaine, Adderall, Percocet, and many more. When marijuana is involved, simple possession would be charged if the amount is over 30 grams and is possessed for personal use.
Possession of a small amount is when an individual possesses, for personal use, less than 30 grams of marijuana or less than 8 grams of hashish.
Often, possession of drug paraphernalia is filed together with an underlying drug possession offense. The definition for drug paraphernalia is very broad. It isn’t just the obvious sorts of things like a bong, pipe or grinder. It also includes any object that used in connection with a controlled substance.
For instance, paraphernalia could be a plastic baggie or a Tylenol pill bottle used to store or contain marijuana; it could be a plastic water bottle, or even an apple that is converted into a smoking device; or it could be a paper clip that is used to clean a glass smoking device. In other words, an otherwise legal item becomes illegal if it is used in connection with a controlled substance.
- Pennsylvania Law - Penalties
Possession and drug paraphernalia charges have different penalties, which are outlined in the chart below:
Driver's license suspension
Simple Possession of Marijuana (over 30 grams but for personal use)
35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(16)
$5,000 (first offense)
$25,000 (subsequent offense)
1 year (first offense)
3 years (subsequent offense)
Small Amount of Marijuana for Personal Use (under 30 grams but for personal use)
35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(31)
$500 first offense
Possession of Drug Paraphernalia
35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(32)
- State College Borough Ordinance 2090 – Definitions
The State College Borough Ordinance allows officers to cite an individual with a summary offense for certain marijuana-related offenses within State College Borough.
The definitions used in the Ordinance, however, are different than the state law. The specific violations are (1) possessing a small amount of marijuana, (2) possessing drug paraphernalia, and (3) smoking a small amount of marijuana in a public place.
Smoking marijuana includes “vaping.” The state law does not address “smoking” and only covers possession.
The Ordinance’s definition for drug paraphernalia is limited to only devices that are used or intended to be used for “storing or for smoking marijuana.” Ordinance 2090, § 1002(a). Any item used for another purpose would be drug paraphernalia under the state law. For example, the Ordinance would not cover a scale (weighing marijuana) or a grinder, and possessing them would result in misdemeanor charges.
The definition of a “small amount of marijuana” is the same in the Ordinance and the PA law.
- Limitations of State College Borough Ordinance
The State College Borough Council does not have authority to enact ordinances that amend, repeal or replace Pennsylvania law. Possessing a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia is still illegal and can be charged as a misdemeanor. The ordinance merely gives a borough police officer an option to charge a summary offense rather than a misdemeanor.
Additionally, the State College Borough Council has no authority to enact ordinances that regulate other municipalities in the State College area. The borough website provides a map of the borough's boundaries.
Smoking or possessing a small amount of marijuana or drug paraphernalia is still a misdemeanor in every other municipality in Centre County where many students live and work. This includes College Township, Ferguson Township, Halfmoon Township, Harris Township, and Patton Township.
State College Borough police officers are the only police department in Centre County that will enforce this ordinance. Penn State University Police officers will charge the misdemeanor, not the ordinance violation, even if a Penn State University Police officer stops the individual within the Borough.
- State College Borough Ordinance Penalties
Possessing Small Amount of Marijuana
Ordinance 2090, § 1003(b)(i)
Possessing Drug Paraphernalia
Ordinance 2090, § 1003(b)(ii)
Smoking Marijuana in Public
Ordinance 2090, § 1003(b)(iii)
- Collateral Consequences
Collateral consequences are consequences—in addition to fines and jail/probation—that result because of the conviction. The Council of State Governments Justice Center maintains a survey of collateral consequences to various crimes.
Collateral consequences can also affect things like an individual’s employment, professional licensure, property, civic rights, and driving license privileges.
If convicted of a PA drug law offense, students can be evicted from their housing or apartment, or lose their eligibility for federally subsidized student aid.
A student’s job prospects may not be impacted as much by a State College Borough conviction than a PA drug law conviction. State law prohibits most employers from using a summary conviction when making an adverse hiring decision. However, there are some instances where this prohibition is superseded by federal law. Also, the limitation applies only to employers making a hiring decision. The citation can be considered by current employers, other institutions of higher education, and professional licensing.
- Cleaning Up the Criminal Record – Expungement and Limited Access Orders
For students who are in school working towards a future career, keeping a clean criminal record is often their biggest concern. Currently, a misdemeanor conviction in Pennsylvania creates, in effect, a permanent criminal record. Expungement of a misdemeanor is not available until an individual is 70 years of age and free of conviction for 10 years, dead for three years, or if the governor grants a pardon.
A criminal record can be sealed through a “Limited Access Order,” which is an order that limits the dissemination of certain criminal history record information. Once obtained, criminal justice agencies and children and youth services would still be able to access the information. A private employer, however, would not be able to access the information and would be prohibited from even asking about sealed records. There are several important exceptions to these general rules, so before you answer a question on a job application, you should talk to a lawyer.
An individual who is convicted of an ungraded misdemeanor drug offense may be eligible for a Limited Access Order. The rules are complicated, so you should talk to a lawyer if you think you may be eligible. In general, the eligibility requirements are that you must have paid all of your financial obligations of the sentence in full, have not been convicted of a third degree misdemeanor or higher within 10 years of the date of the conviction, and never been convicted of certain criminal offenses.
If an individual is convicted of a borough ordinance, the person can be eligible to have the record expunged after five years, so long as they have been free from arrest or prosecution during that time. A Petition for Expungement will require a filing fee that must be paid to the Centre County Prothonotary’s office. Ten years after the conviction of the borough ordinance, however, the record will be automatically sealed through a limited access order at no cost to the individual, so long as all the court ordered fines and costs have been paid.
- Penn State Code of Conduct
When a student receives drug-related charges in Centre County, the Penn State Office of Student Conduct will also be notified. The consequences related to any Code of Conduct violation are separate from, and in addition to, any legal consequences the student may face. More information about the student conduct process and student conduct advisers is available on their website.
- International Students
International Students face serious consequences when charged with drug offenses. A drug conviction, for example, can result in deportation, and merely being charged with a drug offense can potentially lead to your visa being canceled or prevent you from adjusting status to a different visa. Even when an international student is placed on ARD, re-entering the country can be difficult or denied. Immigration officials have significant discretion at the border and airports when determining if an individual can enter the country. Immigration officials do not always allow re-entry. It is critical for international students to seek the advice of counsel before traveling!
- Each Case is Different – Options for Representation
Student Legal Services provides free, confidential advice, counsel, or representation to Penn State University Park students. To make an appointment, fill out an intake form.
The public defender’s office is a free service for those who cannot afford to hire an attorney. Once the charges are filed, you can meet with an attorney with that office for a consultation. Although they only accept indigent clients, most students qualify for their services because they look only at the student’s income, not their parents’.
There are also private criminal defense attorneys in Centre County. Private attorneys will often provide free initial consultations. Our offices can provide students with a referral list for private attorneys on request.
Reviewed: June 4, 2019