Louisiana: Senate Approves Bill To Reform Draconian Marijuana Possession Law

LouisianaCannabis

New Law Would Be Important Step Toward Reducing Louisiana’s Notoriously Overcrowded Prisons and Jails

Bill Now Heads to the House

Louisiana’s Senate on Monday took an important step toward reforming their state’s harsh marijuana possession law when they approved bill SB 241 by a vote of 27-12. If passed, Louisiana would join the growing number of states that have recently reduced penalties for small amounts of marijuana.

“This is a long-sought opportunity to take a more compassionate and commonsense approach to marijuana,” said Yolande Cadore, director of strategic partnerships at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “Louisiana's overdue for a major overhaul of its drug policies and this is a good first step."

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world – and Louisiana has the highest rate in the U.S. Louisiana’s incarceration rate has doubled in the last twenty years and is nearly five times higher than Iran's, 13 times higher than China's and 20 times higher than Germany's. One of the key drivers of Louisiana’s world-leading incarceration rate is the war on drugs – 18,000 Louisiana residents are arrested for drug law violations each year.

According to a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Louisiana suffers from some of the worst racial disparities in marijuana enforcement of any state in the U.S. Black Louisianans are arrested for marijuana possession at 3 times the rate as their white counterparts, despite the fact that black and white people use and sell marijuana at similar rates.

One tragic case in Louisiana is that of Bernard Noble, a father of seven, who is serving 13 years behind bars after he was arrested for possessing 2 joints of marijuana. Mr. Noble had two prior minor drug offenses more than 10 years earlier and because of Louisiana’s habitual offender law, the “third strike” gave him a mandatory sentence of 13 years of hard labor behind bars.

“The opportunity for redemption is to be applauded and signals that a run-in with the law shouldn’t be a burden one carries her entire life," said Jee Park, deputy chief defender at Orleans Public Defenders. “Criminal penalties and the social and economic barriers they create are major hurdles for many families in Louisiana and need to be removed.”

While criminal justice reform advocates say that this is a step in the right direction, Louisiana’s marijuana laws will remain harsher than nearly all other U.S. states, even if SB241 passes the House and is signed into law.

Under current law, the maximum penalties for possession of any amount of marijuana up to 60 pounds are a $500 fine and six months in jail for a first offense (a misdemeanor), a $2,500 fine and five years in prison for a second offense (a felony); and a $5,000 fine and a 20-year prison term for a third or subsequent offense (a felony).

The legislation makes possession of less than 14 grams of marijuana punishable by maximum sentence of a $300 fine and 15 days in jail. Second offenses are a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail; third offenses are a felony punishable by up to a $2,500 fine and two years in prison; and fourth or subsequent offenses are a felony punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and eight years in prison.

According to a 2014 survey conducted by the ACLU, the majority of Louisianans are in favor of marijuana sentencing reform.

An August 2013 Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey found that 56 percent of likely voters favor citing individuals for simple marijuana possession over arresting them. The same poll found that 64% said they are against strict penalties for repeat offenders.

"It's outrageous to punish marijuana possession so severely when a clear majority of Louisiana voters support eliminating criminal penalties for it," added Cadore. "It's a relief to see that smart policymakers are starting to recognize this political reality."

Speaking on the Senate floor, Morrell said on Monday that the law enforcement groups became willing to compromise partly to reverse the perception associated with Louisiana's world-leading incarceration rate, reports Emily Lane at the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

"There is a tremendous perception problem in Louisiana regarding the 'Cool Hand Luke' (approach) to incarceration," Morrell said. His bill addresses both the "real and perceived" issue of Louisiana's harsh marijuana laws that he described as "draconian."

In most states, the maximum penalty for simple marijuana possession does not exceed one year of jail time. By reducing the maximum penalty for repeat offenders from 20 years in prison to eight years, Louisiana's penalties are still eight times higher than surrounding states, Morrell said. But he added that at least they are not 20 times higher.

Morrell's bill now heads to the House for consideration.