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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

New rules reduce penalties for pot possession

Posted By on Wed, Jan 27, 2016 at 5:00 PM

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Pot smokers might receive only verbal and written warnings instead of fines and jail time if the New Orleans City Council gets behind a proposed ordinance to reduce penalties for simple pot possession.

District A Councilmember Susan Guidry — who helped pass a 2010 ordinance giving officers more discretion in giving first-time offenders a municipal summons instead of arresting them — introduced a new measure today in the Council's Criminal Justice Committee that expands those rules for all simple possession offenses, whether a first strike or fourth. The measure aims to free up the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) to focus on violent crime.

Under the new rules, officers can give a verbal warning for smokers with less than 14 grams of marijuana. A second offense carries a written warning, a third violation includes a fine of no more than $50, and a fourth offense carries a fine of no more than $100.

Guidry and her staff analyzed raw arrest and incarceration data for Orleans Parish to see whether officers were actually using that discretion allowed in the 2010 ordinance. Guidry said her constituents were concerned it was “not being justly used” and that the ease of issuing summonses was unnecessarily putting people into the criminal justice system.

But after dissecting the data, Guidry said many of those fears were misplaced, and that the discretion was used justly. According to Guidry, arrests for simple pot possession were down 50 percent from 2011-2014 compared to arrests from 2007-2010. NOPD issued municipal summonses 70 percent of the time, evenly among white offenders and African American offenders.

What Guidry found, however, were tremendous inequities in enforcement and arrests — African Americans account for 75 percent of all misdemeanor pot arrests and 92 percent of felony pot arrests in Orleans Parish. Guidry also speculated that pot smokers smoking in the privacy of their home in wealthier (white) neighborhoods are less likely to experience any kind of criminal justice than those in poor neighborhoods with higher police presence. Cops also typically have discretion when determining possession vs. possession with intent to distribute.

Guidry's measure also aims to prevent offenders from staying in jail because of a financial burden. Rather than stay behind bars pre-trial or during post-conviction, offenders who “can't honestly pay” a bond may be able to make payments over time or perform community service. Guidry said that on just one recent day — Jan. 17 — four people were in Orleans Parish Prison awaiting trial for simple marijuana possession charges. That jail time, Guidry added, is also costing taxpayers.

“A law that cannot be enforced justly is not a just law,” Guidry said.

According to a 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Louisiana's marijuana arrests rose by 10 percent over the last decade, and the state spent nearly $47 million enforcing marijuana laws in 2010 alone.

But last year, the LSU Public Policy Research Lab found a majority of Louisianans support legalizing pot for medical use. Half of survey respondents were fine with personal use, and fewer than one in five thought jail was an appropriate punishment for possessing a small amount of marijuana — while 68 percent of Louisianans aged 18 to 29 support legalizing it.

State officials have softened their take on marijuana, but only under the strictest terms. The Louisiana Legislature (with support of then-Gov. Bobby Jindal) supported a lean, extremely strict medical marijuana measure last year, and legislators will now determine how to grow and develop a medical product in the state.

The city ordinance still gives NOPD officers discretion to make arrests for marijuana possession under state law. Legislators passed a measure last year lowering some penalties: first time offenders for simple possession can spend up to 14 days in jail and pay a $300 fine, a second offense dropped from a felony to a misdemeanor, and after a two year "cleansing period," a second offense can be treated as a first offense. Felony convictions kick in for third and fourth offenses. But first-time offenders with more than 14 grams can land a $500 fine and up to six months in jail — and up to eight years in prison for a fourth offense.

Guidry — echoing the criminal justice system’s response to the 2010 ordinance — stressed that the new ordinance does not decriminalize pot but simply gives police more discretion over whether they can apply city or state laws for pot possession.

“People are rethinking the war on drugs [and] particularly rethinking putting people in jail for victimless, nonviolent offenses for marijuana possession,” Guidry said.

The ordinance has the support of former NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas, City Council President Jason Williams, the ACLU of Louisiana, and marijuana advocacy group Common Sense NOLA, among others.

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