This Southern State May Soften Its Marijuana Laws

The Louisiana state senate just passed a bill that lessens punishments for marijuana possession.
(Photo: Jason Redmond/Reuters)
May 26, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

On Monday, Louisiana’s senate passed a bill that would decrease the state’s penalties for marijuana possession. Currently, getting caught with even a small amount of marijuana can result in six months of jail time and a $500 fine. For repeat offenses, possession can land you in prison for 20 years. The new bill, introduced by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans, would reduce the maximum prison time for possession from 20 years to eight for repeat offenders and a maximum of 15 days in jail for possession of less than 14 grams of the drug.

Marijuana law reform has taken a central role in the drug policy debate and the wider movement to reform the criminal justice system. States such as Colorado and Washington have begun legalizing marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use, despite of the federal government’s prohibition of marijuana. President Obama, meanwhile, endorsed legalizing medical marijuana. The federal government is unlikely to declassify the drug as an illegal substance anytime soon. But marijuana reform has gained support from Republicans and Democrats in Washington, including senators such as Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Rand Paul.

“We were astounded by how quickly the Louisiana legislature got focused on this issue,” Allen F. St. Pierre, executive director of the marijuana advocacy group the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told TakePart. “Louisiana in some ways went from zero to hero—it really is a dyed-in the-wool red state.”

If it succeeds in the state’s house of representatives, the bill could have a real impact—including saving the state $17 million over the next five years. Louisiana spends less per day than any other state on each person it incarcerates. But incarceration is still expensive—especially when those people are nonviolent drug offenders.

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country: One in every 86 adults in the state is in prison or jail. More than 13,000 arrests in Louisiana were for marijuana offenses in 2010, so tweaking the state’s marijuana penalties could greatly reduce the number of people entering its crowded jails and prisons. The bill would also permit marijuana offenders to have their record cleared if they didn’t commit another crime within two years of the first offense.

While marijuana reform has gained traction around the country, states in the South have mostly tiptoed into the field with limited medical marijuana bills, many of which are effectively useless because it is still illegal to grow or sell marijuana in those states. Georgia’s legislature, for example, passed a bill in April that allows patients to possess a small amount of cannabis oil, which can be administered to prevent seizures in children. Texas’ legislature passed a similar bill earlier in the year. Even with a doctor’s approval, patients will need to travel to states where they can purchase the drug and bring the oil back home to use it.

Still, these cannabis oil bills are indicative of a powerful shift. “The Southeast is moving slower than the rest of the country, but it is no longer a dark hole of marijuana law reform,” St. Pierre told TakePart. Not so long ago, it was taboo to even discuss reforming marijuana policy, mainly because lawmakers—Democrats and Republicans alike—feared being labeled as soft on crime. Now, however, marijuana reform is being embraced by both major political parties.

The first states to begin reforming their marijuana policies have been generally liberal—Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. In the next two years, Ohio, Arizona, and Nevada are expected to adjust their marijuana policies.