Louisiana lawmakers have begun to consider decriminalizing simple pot possession, but it's unclear what may come of any such proposal when lawmakers convene for the 2014 legislative session on March 10.
On Jan. 22, Gov. Bobby Jindal told reporters at Pennington Biomedical Research Center that he would be open to supporting medical marijuana use "if there is a legitimate medical need" and under "very strict supervision." The comments followed a Jan. 21 meeting of the Louisiana House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice, which heard testimonies from doctors, civil rights advocates and law enforcement officials about "the feasibility and effectiveness of legalizing marijuana possession and use."
State Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, has pre-filed House Bill 14, which would significantly decrease penalties for simple marijuana possession. According to Badon and the state 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 law enforcement community remains the biggest opponent lawmakers face in getting pot on the legislative radar. At the Jan. 22 committee meeting, Caddo Parish District Attorney Charles Scott warned the committee to "think long and hard about these laws."
Marjorie Esman, director of the ACLU Louisiana, urged lawmakers to consider decriminalization. Referring to data from the state Department of Corrections, Esman said more than 1,300 people in Louisiana serve jail time for simple marijuana possession. The average sentence is eight years but 10 people are serving life sentences, she said. Nearly 80 percent of offenders are black — a disproportionate figure, she said, as only 30 percent of the state is black.