Interviews & Profiles

Q&A with Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin

The longest-serving district attorney in the history of the county discusses the development of cannabis laws and local enforcement

Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin

Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin

Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin was appointed to the position in January 1998 and has been elected to six four-year terms since. Over the years, as marijuana-related policies have begun to change at the local, state and federal levels, law enforcement officials like Martin have had to adjust to the rapidly changing landscape of cannabis regulation. City & State spoke with Martin, who has clashed with local lawmakers over decriminalization ordinances, about the enforcement of marijuana laws, new THC products popping up on shelves and what state lawmakers could do to provide clarity when it comes to cannabis. 

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

There’s a clear lack of congruence between local, state and federal cannabis laws. Does that complicate things from your perspective?

The law is what it is and we take an oath to enforce it. I don’t pick and choose which laws I choose to enforce. The laws that are on the books, we abide by. 

Looking at some of the products that have caused legal issues, such as Delta-8 products, can you speak on the specific issues they’ve caused and where the sale of those types of products stands from a legal standpoint? 

The law is pretty specific in terms of the percentage of THC that can be in those kinds of things. The first thing we did when we became aware that there were a lot of convenience stores operating in Lehigh County with excessive amounts of those THC products, we put them on notice with a letter that we were going to enforce the law that’s written and suggested that they rid their shelves of that kind of product – and most of them did. 

We have a County Drug Task Force, which I am responsible for, composed of about eight detectives. They made a canvass after we sent the notice out and I think there was one instance where they filed charges. 

The cities of Allentown and Bethlehem have voted to decriminalize marijuana possession but you have continued to uphold state law related to possession. For that reason, some local lawmakers have called you “stubborn” for not adhering to the local ordinances. What are your thoughts on that issue? 

I’ve made it clear to both the city council and members that they do not have the authority to circumvent state law. The state law preempts anything you can do on a local level, so they’re violating their oaths in establishing those ordinances. I’ve been very clear that with regard to the police departments in both of those cities, they are to enforce Pennsylvania law.  

Have you heard from police officers or other district attorneys about what type of legal clarity they would like to see from the state legislature?

There was one district attorney in Pennsylvania who was openly in favor of decriminalizing recreational marijuana – and that, I would guess, is going to happen at some point. When it does, we’ll stop enforcing possession cases. My responsibility as DA is to follow the law and that’s what I’ve instructed the local police department to do. When that’s not the law, then I’ll cease telling them to do that. 

One of the problems in Pennsylvania that we run into is with regard to medical marijuana and people who are driving under the influence of marijuana – and they have a medical card. A medical marijuana card is not a license to drive impaired and that’s the problem. I think that will be a problem with the legalization or decriminalization of recreational marijuana. We have a central booking area where when someone is suspected of driving under the influence, they’re administered a blood test. I get those bills from the laboratory and I can tell you that over the last 20-plus years that I’ve been district attorney, those bills have increased exponentially in regard to drug use. That’s a public safety issue as far as I’m concerned. We have far more people now driving impaired as a result of narcotics and/or marijuana than we do driving impaired because of alcohol. 

Is testing for marijuana difficult because you cannot test using a breathalyzer like you do with alcohol? 

Marijuana stays in your system for up to 30 days. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell when marijuana was ingested unless you have a police officer on the scene who detects an odor, which happens at some frequency. Under the law, it doesn’t matter – if you have marijuana in your system, you’re presumed to be driving under the influence. 

Would it be fair to say increases in marijuana cases have taken away from your ability to work on more serious drug offenses? 

No – with marijuana, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. A district attorney is not merely a prosecutor; we’re supposed to be ministers of justice. There are very few possession-of-marijuana cases that end up in any result other than ARD, which is short for accelerated rehabilitation disposition. It’s a plea, and if you abide by and successfully complete the conditions of your probation, the charge goes away. So by and large, mere possession of a small amount of marijuana results in an ARD. The person rarely goes to jail, unless they have some other more serious offenses associated with them. 

Back to Special Report: Cannabis in Pennsylvania