Puff, Puff, Passing On Legislation

A majority of Louisiana voters support legalizing marijuana, yet legislation to do so can’t seem to pass — and neither can bills to enact harsher penalties.
Woman Smoking A Marijuana Joint

There’s been a lot of high-level discussion about medical and recreational marijuana by state and local officials recently, but the smoke hasn’t yet cleared enough to see exactly what the future of cannabis looks like in Louisiana.
Some lawmakers say there isn’t enough public support for some of the proposals, but others argue the measures have far-reaching economic benefits and the state has a real opportunity to establish a foothold in the industry ahead of potential national legalization.

The 2022 legislative session saw a host of bills related to cannabis, such as HB 125, which sought to regulate “the cultivation, manufacture, and retail sale of cannabis and cannabis products” and HB 1028, which aimed to remove jail time for possessing marijuana paraphernalia. Both of these legislative proposals failed to pass, but others, like HB 629, which prohibited searches of a person’s home based on the smell of cannabis, did make it through the state’s house and senate, signaling active and nuanced discussions about marijuana by lawmakers, and an atmosphere that appears to be much more open to changing the state’s laws regarding cannabis use than in previous sessions.

Last year, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a new law that removed the possibility of jail time for possessing small amounts of pot, essentially decriminalizing marijuana statewide, a term that generally means to remove the threat of jail time for breaking the law, instead replacing it with a fine or some other less harsh penalty. But even then, Gov. Edwards — the son and brother of sheriffs — insisted that new law doesn’t decriminalize the drug.

In a written statement, Gov. Edwards said that “contrary to the narrative developed in the press and elsewhere,” the law doesn’t decriminalize marijuana possession, and that he signed it because of the “toll of over incarceration on our people and our state.”

“Taking this action is another step forward for Louisiana’s criminal justice reform efforts,” Gov. Edwards said.

Marijuana advocates have long pointed to the impacts of marijuana possession laws — which often disproportionately affect people of color — as reason to pass laws that decriminalize the drug.

“Marijuana use is widespread, despite criminal penalties,” said Rep. Richard Nelson, a Republican representative of District 89. “Enforcing these penalties costs the state money, breaks up families, and imprisons citizens that could otherwise be productive members of society. These measures cannot be justified for using a drug that causes less societal harm than other legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco.”

Nelson also said that penalties for possessing marijuana, even in small amounts, have significantly more of an impact on poorer citizens who can’t afford quality legal representation. “Decriminalization does not permit a legal cannabis market, but avoids most of the economic costs associate with enforcement and incarceration,” Nelson said. “In Louisiana, an arrest for marijuana possession costs approximately $6,000 to the justice system.”

That’s why Nelson wants to go further than just decriminalization. In the 2021 legislative session, he brought a bill to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, which he said would have generated between $120-140 million per year that could be used to fund other state projects like roads, schools and infrastructure, as well as ensure that marijuana users have access to a safe, regulated product.

“Legalizing recreational marijuana in Louisiana, if done effectively, would create an approximately $750M industry that is currently captured by the black market,” Nelson said. “This would have a significant impact in creating jobs and generating legitimate economic activity throughout the state, but it would be especially felt in the rural areas that struggle in traditional economic development.”

Additionally, Nelson added that recreational marijuana would create a domestic cannabis industry prior to legalization on a national level, which would allow the industry to be established in Louisiana before opening it up to out-of-state competition.

“After national legalization occurs,” Nelson said, “states with established industries will have a significant competitive advantage over states that have yet to introduce legalization.”

In New Orleans, local politicians have also expressed their support for reform. Since he began his career as public defender, Councilmember JP Morrell has been a staunch criminal justice advocate in support of marijuana decriminalization.

Morrell also supports full legalization.

“Every year that the state of Louisiana declines to legalize marijuana, we miss out on millions of dollars in tax revenue that could have gone to infrastructure, early childhood education, and other key sectors in the state,” Morrell said. “We know that marijuana legalization can revitalize a state’s economy, as we have seen it in states such as Colorado and Oklahoma. With six out of 10 Louisianians in support of marijuana decriminalization, it begs the question: ‘Why haven’t we done this sooner?’

Regardless, Nelson’s bill failed to gain enough support to pass.

In addition to proposed legislation that sought to legalize or decriminalize marijuana in last year’s session, there were also some that went in the other direction, proposing making penalties for using or possessing cannabis harsher, like HB 700, sponsored by Rep. Lawrence A. “Larry” Bagley, a Republican from District 7. The bill, which failed to advance, sought to impose possible jail time for people under the age of 18 found in possession of marijuana.

Rep. Bagley said that while the state has significantly reduced penalties for marijuana, it’s still classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substance Act—the same classification as heroin and LSD—meaning it has a high potential for abuse, and has no accepted medical use. Plus, he said his constituents just don’t support it.

“I have polled my district several times and the largest margin of pro-legalization was 26%,” Bagley said. “I can’t vote for it. It is illegal and people that use it take that risk…. Being punished is the outcome of use.”

Rep. Bagley’s district, however — comprised of Caddo, DeSoto and Sabine Parishes — doesn’t represent the statewide view on marijuana, which also appears to be rapidly changing. According to a University of New Orleans Research Center poll released in April 2022, 55% of registered voters in Louisiana support making cannabis legal — a 22% increase from just four years ago.

The change can be seen in St. Tammany Parish — Rep. Nelson’s district — in that it elected a representative that supports cannabis legalization. St. Tammany has some of the harshest penalties regarding marijuana; A man named Kevin O’Brien Allen was sentenced to life in prison for selling $20 worth of pot to a childhood friend.

Advocates and lawmakers like Nelson argue that the cost of incarcerating Louisianans for marijuana is just too high —economically, financially and morally— and causes real, often irreparable harm by breaking up families and ruining lives. They believe change is coming, and the state should get out in front of it.

“Much of the policy debate around marijuana is focused on whether or not people should use it,” said Nelson. “The truth is the use is widespread regardless of the penalties. Our only choice is do we want to have a regulated, taxed market that generates hundreds of millions of dollars to offset any harm, or do we want to maintain a $750M black market that funds drug dealers and cartels?”

 


 

DID YOU KNOW?
There are nine medical marijuana dispensaries in Louisiana: one in Alexandria, Lafayette, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Shreveport, Houma, Madisonville and West Monroe.