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Pittsburgh police: Reggae band gets marijuana citation

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Five members of a reggae band accused of smoking marijuana at a Strip District concert last weekend are among the first cases Pittsburgh police are pursuing under a city ordinance decriminalizing pot possession.

Members of Truth & Rites were inside their van shortly before they were set to perform at Sunday night’s KayaFest when, according to Public Safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler, officers working a security detail at the music festival smelled marijuana coming from the van.

Chester “King Banja” Bailey, one of the band members charged, said the band and others were in the van waiting to go on stage when an officer knocked on the van door. When someone opened it, he said, the officer drew his gun and took some of them into custody.

“We were sitting in the van that took us to the event — just chilling, you know, smoking a little bit,” Bailey said.

Bailey, 56, of the Hill District; Oriel Barry, 32, of the Hill District; Jacque Minniefield, 32, of Oakmont; Jantz Markie, 24, of McKeesRocks; and Blaise Panizzi, 24, of McKees Rocks will receive summary citations via mail for possessing or smoking a small amount of marijuana.

Bailey said no one told him what he’d been charged with, but officers told him he’d receive a citation in the mail.

“We are worldwide travelers; we smoke marijuana,” said Bailey, who is Jamaican and a Rastafarian. “Some of us have been smoking it since we (were) teenagers. Some of us smoke it for health, some of us smoke it to help us through the day, with concentration.”

The incident happened behind the outdoor concert’s stage on Smallman Street shortly before 9:30 p.m. when the band was slated to perform. Toler said two of the men attempted to flee, and officers zip-tied their hands and had them sit on the ground while charges were sorted out.

The citations are an example of city police using a relatively new city ordinance that decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, giving police the option to issue a summary citation rather than a more serious misdemeanor charge for breaking state law prohibiting marijuana possession.

Information on how many citations have been handed out under the city ordinance was not immediately available.

City Council began tinkering with the idea of decriminalization late last year, attempting to emulate a Philadelphia ordinance that allows police to cite a person and issue a $25 fine for possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana or 8 grams of hashish. A person caught smoking the drug could be fined $100.

Council passed an initial bill in December but ran into an issue: The bill gave officers the choice to charge a suspect under state law or to issue a civil citation, but Pittsburgh courts have no mechanism for processing civil violations, thus rendering the ordinance unenforceable.

The amended ordinance allowed for a summary offense, though the language of the bill indicates the charge would make no reference to drugs. When council passed the bill, some members said a conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana shouldn’t taint a person’s criminal record and permanently hurt their chances of getting a job.

Bailey said he was frustrated by the citations.

“We are people of ganja,” he said. “We smoke ganja. We don’t go around selling it; we smoke it. We are musicians. There was no violence. No one created a scene.”

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