When the nation supposedly went dry in January 1920, Louisiana's government and citizenry were divided and greatly lopsided on the issue of Prohibition. With a passion for Mardi Gras and ruling Catholic traditions in the south of the state and fun-loving politicians all over, the Bayou State remained mostly wet — to the ire of the pro-Prohibition Baptists and Methodists in north Louisiana's piney woods.
While the federal law against ingesting alcohol was unequivocal, it didn't stop local and state officials from attempting workarounds. According to Dr. Samuel C. Hyde Jr., a professor of history at Southeastern Louisiana University, some members of the New Orleans City Council tried (unsuccessfully) to circumvent the law by having booze declared a food supplement. Playing to the "wet" tastes of his supporters, Huey Long was often quoted as saying his administration wouldn't do a "damn thing" to enforce Prohibition.
Fast forward nearly a century and Louisiana is in the grips of another prohibition. Taking the place of rumrunners and stills are Mexican mules, West Coast couriers and attic grow rooms. Their product: marijuana. Replacing the speakeasies and restaurants that sneakily served liquor in coffee cups are the cooks who know how to make green butter and the clubs and festivals where joints are freely toked (albeit on the down-low). And just as the pharmaceutical companies that tried to redefine high-alcohol-content beverages as "medicine," forces are at work today on approving a medicinal herb that gets you high.
It's 2014 and marijuana has become a major public policy issue. Barely a year after Colorado and Washington legalized weed, more than half of the states in the nation — including Louisiana — are considering proposals to decrease possession penalties, decriminalize the herb or pave the way for medicinal applications. From a legal perspective, it's a totally different battle than Prohibition, but thematically the two debates intersect at several points.
In 2010, the New Orleans City Council — the same body of pols that wanted to reclassify hooch as food a century ago — made marijuana possession a municipal offense, meaning police could write a summons rather than make an arrest. Supporters argue the move has helped reduce criminal court dockets and free up law enforcement resources. Many contend it was the beginning of the marijuana reform wave in Louisiana.
Sources close to the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Council say members there are quietly considering a proposal that mirrors the one in New Orleans. Metro Council members, behind closed doors, have discussed an ordinance that would make possession of an ounce or less a misdemeanor.
"Ministers and other community leaders are being consulted right now," one source says. "We're not talking about decriminalization or anything like that. We're talking about clearing up jail space and letting police focus on more serious crimes."
But for a city such as Baton Rouge, with a large conservative voting bloc, getting a policy proposal in front of the Metro Council to go lighter on marijuana users is more than half the battle. "The problem is no one wants to be the one to bring it forward," another source says. "And no one is going on the record about it, either."
It's a different story in state government, where officials with large shadows are taking surprising stances — starting with Gov. Bobby Jindal. He says the time for examining softer criminal penalties has come and he would be open to legalizing medical marijuana as long as it's tightly controlled from all angles.
It's a turnaround of sorts for Jindal, at least in regard to medicinal pot. Jindal told Gambit in 2003, "I'm opposed because of my experience at [the state Department of Health and Hospitals]. The experts I worked with from the Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse were very concerned. The experts that work on addictive substances said this is a gateway drug. I'm not convinced that it's good for our society. I don't want to deny doctors from working in a controlled environment, though, and I think there are ways today for doctors to control the medicinal versions of THC." (Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the active ingredient in marijuana.)
Additionally, the Louisiana Sentencing Commission, appointed by Jindal and charged with advising him, voted last month to support reducing penalties for simple possession of marijuana. Specifically, the commission has endorsed HB 14 by state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, which would not allow possession charges to be applied to the habitual offender law. As drafted, it also would not change penalties for the first offense, which currently includes a fine of up to $500, no more than six months in parish prison or both.
What Badon's bill would do is reduce the penalty for second offenses from a maximum of $2,000 and five years to $500 and two years. For third offenses, it would change the maximum from $5,000 and 20 years to $2,000 and five years. "This is just a first step," Badon says. "I'm not sure yet whether the Legislature is ready to do anything more than that."
Of the 10 marijuana-related bills filed for the session so far, none proposes outright decriminalization. Three focus on reducing criminal penalties to varying degrees, much like Badon's legislation. Two bills — SB 541 by state Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, and HB 720 by state Rep. Dalton Honore, D-Baton Rouge — would legalize marijuana for medicinal uses under very strict guidelines.
Mills recently told the Greater Iberia Chamber of Commerce that lawmakers should come up with a way for physicians to prescribe marijuana and for it to be distributed. In 1991 lawmakers cleared the way for medical marijuana to be used by cancer, epilepsy and glaucoma patients, but left the rest of the formula undefined. In preparation for the coming debate, Mills says he reached out to poison control officials and learned that while there have been more calls regarding prescription pain killers, there have been no problems reported with marijuana use.
House Criminal Justice Chairman Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, says the marijuana debate this year will be wide-ranging and that issues are far from being concrete. "I fully expect someone to file a decriminalization bill," he says. "I just don't know who it will be."
Lopinto promises a fair hearing for the pot bills, but his counterpart in the upper chamber, Senate Judiciary C Chairman Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, says that no matter what the House rolls up, he won't inhale. Whether he'll even allow a hearing remains to be seen.
Kostelka's committee serves as a gatekeeper for bills that reduce marijuana penalties, which creates a potential bottleneck in the Senate for supporters of reform efforts. Even if a pro-marijuana bill does slip by Kostelka's committee, as Badon's penalty-reform bill did last year, it still needs the support of the full Senate, which won't be easy.
Kostelka describes marijuana reform bills as a collective "ruse" that eventually will lead people to harder drugs and to committing more crimes. During last month's Louisiana Sentencing Commission meeting, Kostelka cited statistics for the proposition that more than 95 percent of violent crimes are committed by people who had smoked marijuana.
Brian Welsh, executive director of Louisianans for Responsible Reform, a nonprofit advocacy group that will be heavily involved in this year's debate, counters that Kostelka's claims come from the National Institute on Marijuana Abuse and Marijuanaism, which also contends that 65 percent of the population of Vatican City is addicted to marijuana and that people are dying of mari- juana overdoses.
"We must have a rational conversation about this issue and the real harm excessive sentences are doing to taxpayers and families in our state," Welsh says.
Another group out of Baton Rouge, organizing under the banner of CenterSway.org, is said to be building a defense as well. But like Louisianans for Responsible Reform, they face a formidable challenge in Kostelka, who remains an anti-pot crusader.
Public opinion appears to be moving away from Kostelka and the National Institute on Marijuana Abuse. A 2013 survey conducted by Public Policy Polling of North Carolina shows 49 percent of those polled would be more likely to support a candidate for office in Louisiana if he or she voted to reduce penalties for the possession of marijuana. Another 53 percent support mirroring the legalization laws put into place in Colorado and Washington.
In an earlier interview, Dr. Ed Chervenak, an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Orleans, said the poll numbers may not amount to much unless there's a large, organized effort statewide to explain the benefits of reform. He adds that's what has usually pre-ceded reforms in other states.
"That's what would get the Legislature moving, although we're unlikely to see (legalization) any time soon," says Chervenak. "Something else that might convince them is whether Colorado starts to see big bucks rolling in from tax revenue." According to The New York Times, there are expectations in Colorado for as much as $100 million in tax revenue annually.
The PPP poll, commissioned by the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, also showed that 56 percent of participants would support a $100 fine without jail time for those who possess an ounce or less of marijuana. Another 59 percent said they currently oppose, in general, longer prison terms for simple possession. At the very least, that puts bills like Badon's on better footing.
Polling also shows how the state's prohibition against marijuana is indeed a far cry from the nation's 13-year prohibition against alcohol. With the latter, there were no layers of reform, just a single federal switch that turned the party back on. With marijuana reform, it's every state for itself. And while Louisiana may still trail states like Colorado and Washington in terms of legalizing weed, supporters say it should at least catch up with its Southern counterparts; Mississippi reduced possession to a misdemeanor nearly a decade ago.
Welsh invokes an age-old contrast to drive home the point. "I mean, when you're 10 years behind Mississippi," he says, "something is terribly wrong."