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Mile-High City 

Perspective: A former New Orleanian who's moved home says Louisiana could learn from Colorado's new "green laws."

click to enlarge A cannabis shop in Denver, Colorado.

Photo by Jeffrey Beall/Creative Commons

A cannabis shop in Denver, Colorado.

I bought pot today.

  And I'm feeling very proud of my home state of Colorado. It's a perk — but it's not the reason I just moved back after 15 years away, the past eight spent in New Orleans.

  Sure, it's pretty rad that I can walk into a store and legally purchase a few grams of Sweet Lemon Skunk, a few grams of Bruce Banner and a sparkling mandarin soda, but my appreciation goes much deeper.

  It takes bold and brave policymakers and voters to challenge ill-conceived, narrow-minded and archaic laws and forge new territory. As other states eventually let common sense — and democracy — rule, they will look to Colorado.

  As with any major policy (and social mindset) overhaul, it will take time to work out the kinks. It takes courage to be the first — the ones to go through the trial and error process — the ones to make sacrifices and mistakes in order to figure out how best to regulate, tax and enforce the regulations so that other states can learn best practices.

  It takes lawmakers and law enforcers who are willing to act for the betterment of the people they serve instead of reacting to baseless political fearmongering and the greed of the prison industrial complex. Or are the culprits the corporations running the country? Does legalized marijuana threaten the profits of the alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries? Does the unrestricted harvesting of the extraordinarily versatile, efficient, inexpensive, and renewable hemp plant — hailed as a potential replacement for petroleum — threaten Big Oil?

  I appreciate Colorado for being forward-thinking while judicious. Regulate and tax pot — it's a no-brainer, but it's easier said than done.

  I appreciate legalization as a slap to the nation's self-medicating hypocrites — those who demonize the leafy green plant and the people who partake, those "law abiding" citizens who pop pills to sleep, to be awake, to not be sad, to not be anxious, to be indifferent, to first make the pain go away and then to fill the unbearable craving of doctor-prescribed and industry-pushed opiates that are exponentially more addictive and more dangerous than cannabis.

  Americans take 80 percent of the world's pain pills (do we have that much more pain than people in other countries?), and death by prescription pills has surpassed car accidents as the nation's leading cause of accidental deaths.

  If health and well-being were the priorities of drug policy makers, cigarettes would be illegal and the Food & Drug Administration wouldn't approve pharmaceuticals whose makers later reveal the treatment is far worse than the affliction — only after their patent runs out, of course, and they've made billions of dollars in profits.

  If the health of our children was the priority, industrial toxins in our food, air and water would be more transparently and stringently regulated, and millions of parents wouldn't be subduing their 7-year-olds with methylphenidates and amphetamines instead of finding a healthy outlet for excess energy or addressing the root causes of their problems.

  Everyone has their vice, their escape, their way to self-medicate, to let loose on the good days and survive the bad. But on a scale of risk and health hazard — marijuana is without doubt on the safer side of the spectrum (with fewer overdoses than Tylenol), and is less addictive and less prone to fueling violence.

  The people with whom I waited in line to buy pot in the northwest corner of Colorado were not the unwholesome dregs of society. It's one of the healthiest states in the nation. In front of me was a conservative local rancher in his 70s. Behind me was a congenial couple in their 50s who were visiting from Minnesota.

Hypocrisy, ignorance, and the corporate-run government infuriate me, but the deepest depth of my appreciation for the legalization of marijuana comes from the past eight years I lived in Louisiana.

  Louisiana leads the nation in incarceration rates. Locking up people (especially for drug offenses) is big business in the state. And the prisons have to be full to make the big bucks, even if it means filling them with a significant number of nonviolent marijuana offenders. Louisiana, which boasts some of the harshest marijuana laws in the country, is the most egregious microcosm in the nation that leads the world in locking up people.

  The United States has about 5 percent of the world's population and houses around 25 percent of its prisoners. Louisiana's incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran's, 13 times China's and 20 times Germany's.

  "A majority of Louisiana inmates are housed in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt," Cindy Chang wrote in a 2012 series in The Times- Picayune.

  Sure, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced in January he's open to medical marijuana — but that's been legal in the state since 1991. And yes, New Orleans made a change in 2011 to a process through which first-time offenders are prosecuted, giving the option of a summons as opposed to an arrest. But nothing has been done to reduce the penalties.

  "It's time for Louisiana to revisit the cost of marijuana prosecutions," Marjorie Esman, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana's executive director, wrote in a report last year. "In Louisiana it's possible to receive a sentence of life without parole for marijuana possession, if there have been other prior offenses. Meanwhile, being arrested for even a very small amount of marijuana can cost someone a job, result in the loss of student financial aid, lead to the loss of custody, and otherwise disrupt family relationships."

  Donna Weidenhaft, a public defender in New Orleans, told Rolling Stone's Bruce Barcott in January that "It doesn't matter how much or how little marijuana is involved ... in Louisiana you can get twice as much prison time for marijuana possession as sexual battery." Barcott tells the story of Bernard Noble, who was riding his bike on South Miro Street in 2010 when he was searched by police. Cops found a bag with less than three grams of marijuana.

  Because of prior felony convictions for possession, Noble was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 13 and one-third years. The judge took pity on Noble and sentenced him to five years, but District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro appealed the ruling three times before getting the full 13 years for Noble.

  In Louisiana, getting caught with any amount of pot under 60 pounds — even a single joint — can land you in prison for six months. The second offense can get you five years, and as much as 20 years for the third offense. Cultivating or distributing any amount — even one joint — will get you a mandatory minimum jail sentence of five years, and a maximum of 30 years and $50,000 fine. For the second offense, it's a 10- to 60-year prison sentence and a $100,000 fine. Meanwhile, in Colorado, residents are now permitted to grow up to three plants for personal use.

  In Louisiana, if you get caught selling to a minor, plan on spending the next 45 to 90 years in jail and paying $75,000.

  But it's not just how many people we lock up for pot, or for how much, or for how long — it's also who we are locking up.

  According to the ACLU study, black people were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people in 2010. During the same time, the study found that marijuana usage rates among whites and blacks were nearly identical, about 12 to 14 percent.

  In the New Orleans context, this blatant statistical racism makes me hypothesize that if police were to target young white men attending the city's elite universities at the same rate they go after young black men in the 'hood, the racial breakdown of marijuana arrests would not be so disparate.

Having stood at the edge of the yellow police tape at many a murder scene, I know firsthand the depth of damage caused by stupid drug policy.

  I believe the cycle of gun violence is only propagated by a system all too eager to lock up (certain) people for marijuana offenses.

  For every black man locked up unnecessarily, a potentially productive taxpayer is instead turned into a taxpayer burden. But the financial cost is not nearly as tragic as the social one. Every black man in prison for a marijuana offense represents a broken family unit. A broken community. Sons are left fatherless, and with that goes direction, hope and a strong male role model — all over a plant less harmful than cigarettes and alcohol.

  Despite politicians' well-funded crime-reduction programs, with clever acronyms and catchy names, as long as the powers that be remain gung-ho on locking up black men for pot and other nonviolent offenses, families and communities will remain broken, the future will remain bleak and unjust for the next generation and the cycle of violence will continue — as will the distrust between citizens and those who purport to be their protectors.

  When Colorado relaxed its laws, I waited in line for two hours to legally purchase cannabis products — not because I was desperate for a high. I wanted to be there, to see history made with my own eyes and smell the delightful dankness with my own nose.

  After nearly a decade of watching young men being shot and killed on the streets of New Orleans — right down my street — I am desperate for drug policy that moves away from lies, greed and hypocrisy and that is genuinely enacted in the best interest of the health, safety, civil rights and freedom of the people.

Kari Dequine Harden was a reporter for The Times-Picayune and The Advocate. She moved back to her home state of Colorado last year.

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