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Regulating Willie's Stash 

Despite a recent high-profile bust and the advocacy it has brought, stiffer fines and penalties are expected for Louisiana's marijuana laws.

A pound and a half of marijuana wasn't the only thing Willie Nelson allegedly brought into Louisiana two weeks ago. Trailing closely behind was a wave of pro-pot advocacy and media attention, which isn't surprising. After all, Nelson appears as himself in the new movie Beerfest, looking for teammates to compete in a dope-smoking contest. He's also a pitchman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Actor Johnny Knoxville has been lobbying on Nelson's behalf in recent interviews, and NORML released a study on the same day the music star was busted indicating marijuana arrests are at an all-time high. Outlets ranging from Entertainment Weekly to BBC News also have taken the time to dissect Louisiana's statutes. Nelson faces up to six months in jail and a maximum fine of $500 for a first offense.

Positive press -- and a good lawyer -- might help Nelson wiggle off the hook like he did with a similar misdemeanor in Texas 12 years ago, but it will do little to loosen up Louisiana's marijuana laws. The concept of stiffening penalties for first-time offenders was floated during this year's regular session, and the onset of the legislative election cycle promises tough stances on drugs.

Still, there are indications that the issue has some life in Louisiana. Not only has the governor been receptive to medicinal use in the past, but one of her committee chairmen contends he would grant any decriminalization bill a fair hearing, as he would with any other topic.

Rep. Danny Martiny, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, says it probably won't come to that, though, unless a rogue lawmaker, liberal judge or district attorney not seeking re-election takes up the charge. He also says he would oppose any move to soften Louisiana's marijuana laws because that's what his constituency would want. It's a defense Martiny says other lawmakers also could easily make.

"I don't think there are any districts in the state with a real liberal majority that would even allow this to become an issue if their legislator brought it up," Martiny says. "The political leanings of the state are more to the right, and for the first time in the history of the Legislature, there's a decent chance Republicans can take over the House, and I can assure you nothing like that would pass if it happens."

Despite the forecast, there are exceptions in other southern GOP states. For instance, in Eureka Springs, Ark., an initiative to decriminalize minor marijuana possession will appear on the November ballot. It would replace criminal arrests with summons for up to 1 ounce of marijuana or possession of paraphernalia. Cities in Michigan and Wisconsin have also enacted local decriminalization laws, and a Missouri municipality started issuing small fines for similar violations in 2004.

Louisiana, though, seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Rep. Robby Carter, an Independence Democrat, filed legislation during this year's regular session to double the fine for first-offense misdemeanor possession to $1,000. Carter says the bill was sponsored by the Louisiana District Attorneys Association (LDAA) and was put on hold at their request as other priorities came up. Nonetheless, it offers an inside look at the group's policy agenda.

"We'll probably be bringing that back up again next year," says Pete Adams, executive director of the LDAA.

As for medical marijuana, Gov. Kathleen Blanco is the latest in a long line of chief executives with a sympathetic ear for the issue. In 1978, former Gov. Edwin Edwards signed a bill allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana to those suffering from paralysis, glaucoma and cancer. The legislation also established the now-defunct Marijuana Prescription Review Board.

Former Gov. Dave Treen signed into law a similar medical marijuana bill in 1981, as did former Gov. Buddy Roemer 10 years later. While Gov. Mike Foster never saw a prescription marijuana bill land on his desk, he did vote in favor of one as a state senator.

If Blanco were to follow in her predecessors' footsteps, it would likely be with a bill allowing doctors to recommend marijuana to patients. It's the latest medical marijuana trend among states, and a district court ruling in 2000 protects doctors from being sanctioned by federal authorities for such recommendations. Actually prescribing marijuana or using it for medicinal use, however, is illegal.

But Paul Armentano, a senior policy analyst with NORML, says the tide could be changing. He released a report last month summarizing more than 120 published trials assessing the therapeutic use of marijuana for everything from hepatitis C and hypertension to cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

"In some of these cases, modern science is now affirming longtime anecdotal reports of medicinal cannabis users," he says. "In other cases, this research is highlighting entirely new potential clinical utilities for cannabinoids," which are credited for marijuana's pharmacological attributes.

When it comes down to political realities in Louisiana, Martiny says marijuana advocates should shift their focus from decriminalization and medicinal use to the tougher laws that apparently are ahead.

"I think there's a better chance that there will be a stiffening of penalties by the Legislature more than anything else because people want to be tough on crime during an election year, and that's a shame," he says. "As long as people want to keep paying for [the imprisonment of lawbreakers], I'm sure (Corrections Secretary) Richard Stalder will keep locking them up."

Contact Jeremy Alford at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

click to enlarge Under Louisiana law, music legend Willie Nelson could face - six months in jail and a $500 fine if convicted on charges - related to his marijuana bust two weeks ago. - (C) 2005 WARNER BROS
  • (c) 2005 Warner Bros
  • Under Louisiana law, music legend Willie Nelson could face six months in jail and a $500 fine if convicted on charges related to his marijuana bust two weeks ago.
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