Cannabis decriminalization may be coming to the bayou, as four cannabis bills have already been filed for Louisiana’s legislative session that started this week.
Representative Edward Ted James filed two of the bills. One to decriminalize the personal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, and the other to expand access the state’s forthcoming medical marijuana program.
Currently, in Louisiana, things can get pretty rough for simple pot possession. If you’re caught with up to 14 grams, so anything between a joint and a half ounce, you’re looking at up to 15 days in jail. There is also an additional fine that could top out at $300, not to mention lost income and any additional court fees. Over a half ounce? Then things get even wilder, with someone caught in possession of 15 grams of marijuana or more looking at up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.
If HB 611 is successful, this would all change to a $100 dollar fine for up to one ounce. It would also specifically address that a person is not subject to arrest while also limiting the state’s ability to impose any additional penalty on a person for possessing a small amount of marijuana or having cannabinoids. In Louisiana’s eyes the move would prohibit these civil violations from being considered a state or federal drug offense, a parole violation, or grounds for denying student financial aid, public housing, and other programs.
In an exclusive interview with Cannabis Now, James explained how cannabis reform got onto his plate as a lawmaker and how long he’d been eyeing the decrim push.
“The city of New Orleans adopted a local ordinance last year and here in Baton Rouge, our city council adopted an ordinance as well,” James said. “We’ve got the two largest cities in the state that have moved on it so I figured it was something we should do statewide.”
We asked James his thoughts on the bills overall, his hopes for the legislative session and how he thought his colleagues would respond. One of the big things he’s doing to garner support are amendments to the bill that dedicates part of the revenue to law enforcement.
“One of the things we’re dealing with in Louisiana is a huge budget deficit so my plan is to make it not only about the decriminalization but also make it a fiscal bill to help law enforcement with some of the issues they’ve been having,” said James. “But traditionally, Louisiana is always last to do things progressively. I mean it took us many many years to even get medical cannabis passed. I’m not looking for it to fly through the legislature but the polling looks really good, especially in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and most of the major cities. I’m hoping my colleagues are open to the discussion.”
Advocates are applauding the effort while noting how bad the situation currently is.
“Louisiana would be wise to expand upon a policy that is already in effect in their largest city, New Orleans, and approve statewide marijuana decriminalization as a first step towards legalization,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri told Cannabis Now on the news of the group of bills being filed in Louisiana.
Altieri says it is immoral to continue to arrest over 17,000 citizens a year for nothing more than the simple possession of marijuana and to continue to burden state taxpayers with the cost of that enforcement, which totals over $45 million a year.
“Furthermore, these arrests are disproportionately oppressing people of color in the state,” he said. “While African Americans constitute only 30 percent of the state’s population, they account for 60 percent of all marijuana possession arrests, despite usage rates being similar to that of all other demographics. State lawmakers need to put an end to this failed, discriminatory policy and pursue more sensible solutions. Approval of this bill would be a great place to start.”
We asked James if he felt his bill would have an impact on the severe racial disparity in Louisiana policing highlighted by Altieri.
“The bill will certainly reduce the number of African Americans, particularly males, that are sitting in jail for low-level drug offenses,” James said. “The research tells us, especially in here in Baton Rouge, that marijuana use is not independent to the black community but we see all across the country that most of the arrests are happening in poor communities of color. So we’re hoping we will address not only decriminalizing, but also destigmatizing.”
The second bill to be filed, HB 579, would bring a lot of new medical patients into the fold. Currently, the Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners and the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy are only allowed to prescribe and distribute cannabis for 10 medical conditions that include cancer, epilepsy, and AIDS. HB 579 would add glaucoma, severe muscle spasms, intractable pain, and PTSD.
Another bill, HB 627 would expand the state’s medical marijuana program specifically around autism. The bill would cover folks suffering at various points on the autism spectrum to help limit self-harming behavior.
Last but not least, Representative Edmond Jordan’s HB 274 lays a lot of groundwork for the future of cannabis in Louisiana. Current law is tied completely to the effective enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act. If Jordan’s bill passed it would remove those criminal penalties for marijuana sales and distribution, provided that the state legislature is constructing a system of regulation for the legal sale and distribution of marijuana and the establishment of a sales tax. So technically speaking, there will never be “legal cannabis” in Louisiana in the future without a sales tax by law given the current language of the bill. You can never plan too far ahead!
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