Recent polls in Louisiana suggest a majority of voters support legalizing marijuana in the state. Now Louisiana lawmakers have started considering decriminalizing pot possession — and asking what would happen if it was legal.
Yesterday, Gov. Bobby Jindal said he would be open to supporting marijuana use "if there is a legitimate medical need" and under "very strict supervision." And Tuesday, the Louisiana House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice fielded dozens of testimonies from doctors, civil rights advocates and law enforcement officials to discuss "the feasibility and effectiveness of legalizing marijuana possession and use." Earlier this month, state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, pre-filed House Bill 14, which would significantly decrease penalties for criminal simple marijuana possession.
Current state law states first offenders may be jailed for up to six months. Second convictions call for a fine no larger than $2,500 and jailtime no fewer than five years (“with or without hard labor”). Third and following convictions call for up to 20 years in jail. Badon’s bill keeps the fines for first-time offenders, while those convicted a second time would face no more than two years in jail, with five years for third convictions and eight years for subsequent convictions. According to Badon and the state's Department of Corrections, the state admits 400 first and second offenders a year with an average sentence length of one and a half years. Badon says the state could save millions of dollars by keeping those offenders out of prisons.
State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, introduced a similar bill (with Badon’s support) last year, but it died on the Senate floor. The state does have a medical marijuana statute, which allows doctors to prescribe marijuana for "glaucoma, symptoms resulting from the administration of chemotherapy cancer treatment, and spastic quadriplegia" — though, as House criminal justice attorney Greg Riley noted Tuesday, there's still nowhere to legally get that prescription filled.
Law enforcement remains the biggest obstacle that lawmakers will face in getting pot on the docket. At Tuesday's meeting, Rochelle Head-Dunham, assistant secretary of the state's Department of Health and Hospitals, warned that marijuana use is linked to schizophrenia and heart attacks. Caddo Parish District Attorney Charles Scott warned of the possibility of an "impaired workforce," specifically in oil and gas industries. Col. Mike Edmonson, superintendent of the Louisiana State Police said legalizing marijuana would mean reopening and gutting DUI laws if legislature was "looking beyond medical marijuana." Edmonson also said he was not aware of any law enforcement agencies supporting marijuana decriminalization, but state police are "bound to enforce any legislation that passes."
State Rep. Terry Landry, a retired former superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, said he's concerned marijuana is "feeding into incarceration," asking, "Is marijuana a low lying fruit that’s a feeder system into incarceration?" Landry told the law enforcement panel he believes "we're going to reach a happy medium" with legislation.
ACLU Louisiana director Marjorie Esman urged lawmakers to consider decriminalization and look at the disproportionate numbers of people incarcerated for marijuana possession. Esman, quoting figures from the state's Department of Corrections, said more than 1,300 people in Louisiana serving jailtime for simple marijuana possession. The average sentence is eight years, and there are 10 people serving life sentences. Nearly 80 percent of offenders are black — a disproportionate figure, she said, as only 30 percent of the state is black.
Badon asked Scott a series of questions about marijuana and its link to "street-level crime," and Scott said legalizing marijuana in-part will not lower crime. "The money in drug trade is in marijuana," he said. "You’re still going to have sellers out there." Badon posited that if buyers could go to a "state-sanctioned place" for marijuana, they would be less likely to interact with street dealers. Scott disagreed.
"How many state sanctioned facilities are there going to be?" Scott said. "We can follow the lead of other states and see. … We don’t have to be the leader in that. … This committee needs to think long and hard about these laws. ... You can slice it thin, you can slice it thick, still baloney to me."
Badon added that he finds it ironic that marijuana has been shown to lessen the effects of cancer, while cigarettes are legal and may cause cancer. Scott replied that "effects and side effects are overall bad."
Kevin Caldwell of the group Common Sense NOLA said legalizing marijuana in the state would have significant economic benefits. "There's a $200 million marijuana industry in New Orleans that’s untaxed and unregulated," he said, adding that marijuana prohibition has been a failure, and it should be taxed and regulated. Several other speakers — including Tulane professor MarkAlain Dary and the mother of a young daughter diagnosed with epilepsy — also spoke in favor of legalization.
The 2014 legislative session begins March 10.