On Thursday, Dec. 16, members of the New Orleans City Council gave unanimous thumbs-up to reclassifying simple marijuana possession as a municipal offense. The decision gives New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers the option to issue a summons rather than make an arrest. District A councilwoman and Criminal Justice Committee co-chair Susan Guidry said, "These ordinances will contribute significantly to the city's efforts to promote greater efficiency and equity in our criminal justice system, particularly for our police officers, the District Attorney's office and in the criminal courts."
Pending proper implementation with NOPD and city coding practices, the new ordinance goes into effect at 7 a.m. on Jan. 30. The first available court date is the following Monday.
The ordinance does not, however, decriminalize or "reclassify" possession. The term was reported and proliferated following the council meeting, but both District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office and the Vera Institute, which advises the council on criminal justice, emphasize neither decriminalization nor reclassification are correct terms. The penalties for possession — a $500 fine or up to six months' jail time — remain the same. "People say it's decriminalization. It's not," says assistant DA Christopher Bowman. "Offenders are subject to the same penalties. The only difference is they're not arrested."
Offenders are not only less likely to be arrested: their case won't be in the hands of the DA. City attorneys will handle the case in municipal court — a maneuver already in practice. The decision, according to Vera Institute senior program associate Marisa Arrona, "eliminates the middleman," leaving the city to try to prosecute a marijuana possession case while the DA — and the police — focus on violent offenders.
An arrest is still an option, but a summons is more likely (if an officer decides to do anything at all). According to NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas, those in-the-field decisions have always — even before the council's decision — been left to the officer's discretion, and Serpas isn't telling officers whether to issue summons or make arrests.
"Those officers are trained to investigate crimes, and if the amount of marijuana meets the definition for the state statute or municipal ordinance, they'll act accordingly," he told Gambit. "We're not giving them any special instruction one way or the other."
Led by an initiative from the Criminal Justice Leadership Alliance (CJLA), a group founded by former city councilman James Carter, marijuana possession cases have been expedited gradually in New Orleans courts since March 2009. The alliance introduced a process that slashed pre-trial processing time from 64 days to 10.5 days — but the DA's office was still backed up having to work on these cases, taking an average of 4.5 days from pre-trial screening to arraignment, according to the CJLA.
In August 2009, seven months after taking office, Cannizzaro asked the city council to back an ordinance designating possession as a municipal offense. Cannizzaro stressed he wasn't advocating decriminalization but "just asking these cases be transferred."
Cannizzaro garnered some council support, but he met a stiff response from Orleans magistrate judges, who issued a statement against Cannizzaro's request. Possession cases were previously tried in magistrate court, with one commissioner presiding over a day's worth of possession cases — which occupied more than a third of the docket. (In an Aug. 17, 2009 Gambit commentary, the paper backed Cannizzaro's proposal.)
Medical marijuana possession in Louisiana is still off the table. In 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder echoed President Barack Obama's campaign promise that he would not interfere with medical marijuana clinics (read: no more raids) as long as they operated in compliance with state laws. ("He was my boss during the campaign. He is formally and technically and by law my boss now. What he said during the campaign is now American policy," Holder told reporters in March 2009.) That Washington green light gave the Louisiana legislature the opportunity to decide whether to give the state the OK to open those clinics.
Louisiana already has a medical marijuana law (minor in comparison to those of other states), allowing patients with a prescription to obtain marijuana distributed by the state and obtained from a federal source. Due to another law, however, the state's medicine cabinet is empty: there is no legal supply of marijuana from which doctors could offer a prescription.
Bowman says the ordinance decision reflects the DA's plans to "implement aggressive reforms" and make the office more efficient. He also says the move will "save significant resources," including staff time, and allows the DA's office to focus on prosecuting violent offenders.
The same goes for NOPD. The Vera Institute says it found officers issued summonses 61 percent of the time since last May for municipal cases (except for domestic violence and crimes committed under intoxication), and the percentage has increased every month. Vera anticipates the trend continuing with the new marijuana ordinance. Arrests take hours out of an officer's schedule, and, proponents say, more summonses will free up jail space — about 2,500 people are jailed each year in New Orleans for marijuana possession, according to Vera.
In 2007, the Metropolitan Crime Commission reported that more than half of arrests in Orleans Parish were for municipal or traffic violations. The Vera Institute says the ordinance (and the impact it will have on reducing the pretrial detention jail population) will help the city meet Mayor Mitch Landrieu's Criminal Justice Working Group's resolution to build a new jail with a 1,438 bed capacity — as opposed to Sheriff Marlin N. Gusman's recommendation for a facility more than three times that size. The Vera Institute stresses marijuana possession is a "victimless" crime — there is no civilian victim, Arrona says. (On Feb. 3, the city council and the Criminal Justice Working Group will meet to vote the future of the jail.)
But, again, the group says, the ordinance by no means decriminalizes possession, as has been done in California, where places like Berkeley and Mendocino County view stringent possession laws as unenforceable. The ordinance also is not as routine as a traffic ticket — as in Ann Arbor, Mich., where possession is neither a felony or misdemeanor. A person is simply issued a fine.
Brian Broom-Peltz, executive director of the recently formed NORML Tulane, a campus- and citywide chapter of the state's National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says the group is encouraged by the council's ordinance, particularly for indigent offenders who can't support bail and would be otherwise stuck in jail. The group, however, continues to support an end to marijuana prohibition, and hopes the city, with this ordinance, moves in that direction.
"If the city could see the benefits of ending prohibition and the harms of maintaining policy, it would see a potential for growth," Broom-Peltz says.