New Law an Important Step Toward Reducing Louisiana’s Notoriously Overcrowded Prisons and Jails; Even With This Reform, Louisiana’s Marijuana Laws Remain Harsher Than Nearly All Other U.S. States
NEW YORK—(ENEWSPF)—June 30, 2015. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed legislation yesterday to reform the state’s severely punitive marijuana laws and reduce criminal penalties for simple marijuana possession. The law is expected to save the state up to $17 million and will reduce the chances of Louisianans caught with small amounts of marijuana ending up with lengthy jail or prison sentences or saddled with a criminal conviction.
“Louisiana’s overdue for a major overhaul of its drug policies and this is a good first step,” said Yolande Cadore, director of strategic partnerships at Drug Policy Action, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance. “It’s a relief to see that smart policymakers are starting to recognize this political reality.”
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, 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.
“Thirteen years of hard labor behind bars for two joints is cruel and unusual punishment,” said Cadore. “This new law acknowledges the injustice of Bernard Noble’s heartbreaking plight. He deserves clemency now.”
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. They caution that the signing of the bill into law is just a small first step toward making Louisiana less of an outlier on criminal justice reform.
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. The proposal also allows people convicted of marijuana possession with one chance to apply to have their record expunged if they aren’t convicted of a marijuana violation within two years of the first offense.
According to a 2014 survey conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union, the majority of Louisianans are in favor of marijuana sentencing reform.
An August 2013 Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey found that 56% 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.
DPA Fact Sheet: The Life-Changing Consequences of a Marijuana Arrest
Bobby Jindal signs marijuana bills that reform criminal penalties, medical marijuana access, By John Kelly, June 29, 2015 – http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2015/06/bobby_jindal_marijuana_laws.html
Gov. Bobby Jindal on Monday signed two bills that in one year represent more progress on reforming marijuana laws than the state has made in the 24 years since legalizing medical marijuana in 1991.
In the case of one of the bills, which would set up a framework for dispensing marijuana for medical purposes (SB 143), it will make Louisiana the first state in the South to make marijuana available for a wide range of chronically ill patients. The state passed medical marijuana legislation in 1991, but never set up a framework for how the state would cultivate, prescribe or dispense the drug.
The other bill (HB 149) would reform criminal penalties for marijuana, making it a misdemeanor rather than a felony for a second offense of marijuana possession. It also allows first-time offenders to erase their first conviction for possessing marijuana if they don’t re-offend within two years.
Jindal has previously indicated his support for both pieces of legislation. But in a departure from other major bill signings, Jindal did not issue a press release explaining why he signed the bills or offer any commentary about the importance of the two bill signings.
One of the reason the two bills were seen as so important this year is that bill sponsors managed to convince key opponents in years past — including the Louisiana Association of Sheriffs — not to stand in the way of the legislation this year. The Sheriffs’ Association did not endorse the legislation, but also did not seek to block it.
You can read more about efforts to convince the Sheriffs’ Association not to block the bill here.
Various efforts to pass similar legislation failed in the past. Some organizations, including the Sheriffs’ Association and the District Attorney Association, had voiced opposition to the criminal penalties reform because they viewed it as a step closer to legalization.
But state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, consistently framed the bill as an attempt to bring Louisiana’s criminal penalties for possessing the drug more in line with other Southern states. Other lawmakers said they were persuaded by arguments that the drug’s felony implications had the potential to ruin the futures of young drug offenders.
Before session ended, there were still some questions about how the medical marijuana bill would be implemented. The drug would need to be cultivated in the state, and the bill was also modified to also only allow cannabis oil — which raised questions about who would set up that process.
Since then, according to The News Star of Monroe, LSU has indicated it would be willing to cultivate the drug on one of 19 AgCenter sites throughout the states. It’s still not clear who would process the marijuana plant once it is cultivated.
The medical marijuana bill was sponsored by state Sen. Fred Mills, R-New Iberia; the two criminal penalties bills — which were later modified to essentially become the same bill — were sponsored by Morrell and state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, respectively.