Days before the Louisiana Legislature convened, state Rep. Dalton Honore trekked to Denver for field research related to legislation he's pushing in Louisiana. The journey brought him just a few blocks from the Colorado State Capitol, to a marijuana dispensary.
"Some of the (pot) shops look like Apple stores," said Honore, a Democrat from Baton Rouge, as he scrolled through photos of marijuana plants on his iPhone.
The 72-year-old is a former sheriff's deputy who has "never had a marijuana cigarette in my life." Moreover, he said, he's never been in the company people smoking it. But Honore said it is time to stop locking people up for using the drug and start treating it more like alcohol by focusing on education and treatment.
"Eventually it's coming," said Honore, of legalized marijuana for recreational use. "Nobody wants to be the first in the South. We'll probably be the last ... But the deficit we're facing every year, we need it."
Honore's legislation, House Bill 117, proposes to put a measure on the 2016 presidential ballot asking residents to vote on marijuana legalization. He chose that date because it falls after re-election for most of his colleagues in the Legislature and because there's likely to be higher voter turnout.
But the lawmaker acknowledged he faces a difficult task in getting the measure through the Legislature and onto the ballot. The challenge, he said, is to get other lawmakers think about his bill not as "a vote for marijuana," but as "a vote to let people vote in 2016."
With most marijuana-related legislation, the only "slam dunk" votes that can be depended on from lawmakers are those from urban-area Democrats, state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said. Morrell has proposed his own marijuana legislation that seeks to lower the penalties for possession of small amounts.
"There's a fear of being portrayed as soft on crime," he said.
While he thinks Honore is "well intentioned," he doubts his legislation has a chance of survival, considering how difficult of a time Morrell has had pushing through lower penalties. Moreover, Gov. Bobby Jindal said last week he would not support full-on legalization. He would likely exercise his veto power.
Honore said he's sure legalization would be approved if it gets on the ballot, but the 2015 Louisiana Survey indicates pot for personal use is not a sure thing in Louisiana: Fifty-two percent of those surveyed still oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and 45 percent support legalization. The gap shrunk from last year, however, when the spread was 56 percent against it and 42 percent in support.
A hurdle for any legislator proposing marijuana reforms -- and most any other criminal justice bill -- is to get the support, or at least a neutral stance, from the Louisiana Sheriff's Association, the Louisiana District Attorney Association and other law enforcement groups.
Especially in rural parts of the state, the sheriff and district attorney are seen as the top law enforcement leaders, Morrell said. "The public really puts a lot of stock and trust in what the sheriffs and DAs tell them."
When those groups oppose a bill, it sends the message that the legislation will make the public less safe. Bucking public safety advocates, then, "could be a very, very strong political consideration."
No matter what's said during testimony, legislators' decisions are often guided on certain issues by trying not to provide potential opponents with ammunition for political attacks.
"They're not listening to me," said Morrell, whose legislation makes possession of less than an ounce a misdemeanor, even for repeat offenders. "They're thinking how will this look on a 30 second ad, when I vote for this bill."
State Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, has also sponsored legislation to reduce possession penalties.
The district attorney association opposes Honore's legislation. Pete Adams, the executive director of the district attorney lobby group, said the organization will not oppose Badon's bill and has "not reached a consensus" on Morrell's bill. On the latter, he said, the group is "in negotiations" with Morrell.
Mike Ranatza, the executive director of the sheriffs' lobby group, said Friday (April 24) he could not speak to Honore or Badon's proposals but noted the organization has been in talks with Morrell on his legislation.
All three legislators pushing reform on marijuana laws said there are too many people serving too much time in Louisiana for marijuana charges. "We incarcerate more people than anybody in the world," Honore noted.
Law enforcement groups oppose marijuana legalization, Honore said, because "it's a cash cow." Especially in rural areas, sheriff's offices are sometimes the parish's largest employer. Many agencies make money from court fees or per diem payments by housing prisoners from metropolitan areas where jails are overcrowded.
According to The Denver Post, marijuana court court cases in Colorado fell from 39,027 cases in 2011 to 2,036 last year. Legalization was enacted in 2012.
Badon referenced two highly publicized criminal sentences -- that of former New Orleans Saints player Darren Sharper and of New Orleans resident Bernard Noble -- to illustrate that marijuana penalties are out of whack.
In a press release issued last week, Badon said he finds it "disingenuous when you can have an ex-football player get nine years in jail for using potent narcotics to sexually assault women, and we have a guy sent away for 13 years for having two marijuana cigarettes for his own use."
Badon's legislation, House Bill 149, would drop the maximum sentence for second-offense marijuana possession from five years in prison to two years. It would also drop the maximum sentence for third-offense possession from 20 years to five. Subsequent convictions could allow for a maximum sentence up to eight years.
Morrell's legislation, Senate Bill 241, carves out a new section of the law that deals strictly with possession of an ounce or less of marijuana or synthetic marijuana -- all the offenses would be considered misdemeanors.
The maximum penalty for first-offense possession of an ounce or less would be a $100 fine. The maximum penalty for second offense possession would be a $500 fine and 30 days in jail; and the maximum penalty for a third "or subsequent" conviction would be a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail.
Both bills would remove possession of small amounts of marijuana from consideration for the habitual offender law, often referred to as the three-strikes law.
The primary goal of the legislation, Morrell said, is to prevent people from earning "the scarlet letter of felony drug possession" when they're caught with an ounce or less. Felony drug charges, he said, can impact offenders' employment eligibility for the rest of their lives.
Morrell said he thinks he has a 50-50 chance of success this year. Support from the business community and fiscally conservative groups like The Pelican Institute for Public Policy help to offset pushback from law enforcement groups. While a similar bill of Morrell's died in committee last year, he got vocal support and co-authorship from state Sen. Robert Adley, an influential and longtime Republican lawmaker from Amite. Lowering marijuana penalities aligns with fiscal conservatives' desire to reduce cost of corrections by lowering the incarceration rate.
Current state law penalizes first-time possession of any amount of marijuana up to 60 pounds with a $500 fine and six moths in jail (a misdemeanor), a $2,500 fine and five years in jail for a second offense (a felony) and a third conviction can bring a $5,000 fine and a 20-year jail term (a felony).
Honore is also sponsoring legislation -- House Bill 6 -- to make medical marijuana dispensaries legal in Louisiana. The purpose of that legislation, he said, was to set up a mechanism to dispense recreational marijuana, as well. In Colorado, marijuana dispensaries dole out both medical and recreational marijuana, though the products are grown and handled separately.
State Sen. Fred Mills, R-New Iberia, is forging a serious effort to legalize medical marijuana dispensaries, as well.
Honore said his biggest takeaway from the Colorado visit was receiving confirmation that "the sky didn't fall in." Crime rates did not spike, the transition was smoother than they anticipated and revenues in the state are way up.
The trip confirmed, too, that Louisiana should change how it thinks about marijuana, he said.
"We need to start treating marijuana like the drug that it is -- not the drug that some people fear it to be," Colorado Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, said. "The naysayers that said it would be gloom and doom... Our tax revenues are up and hopefully we'll be able to put some of that money toward our schools, drug abuse prevention programs, after school programs."
Singer has been at the forefront of Colorado's legalization effort, introducing the bill to get it on the ballot. Apparently aware of reports about Louisiana's budget crisis, he said, however, that legalization would not be plug a hole the size of the state's revenue gap.
"Anyone that says this will figure out Louisiana's (1.6) billion-dollar deficit is way off," he said. "We have $70 million in tax revenue."
Still, Honore said, the combination of gaining a new source of tax revenue and getting people who would be getting hardened in jail back to work is a step he deems worth taking -- or at least asking voters to decide.
Why Louisiana's Best Option Is to Legalize Marijuana
- Brentin Mock
The state will not be able to solve its massive economic and incarceration problems without regulating and taxing the sale of pot.
Louisiana is in quite a predicament: It’s broke, really broke.
State lawmakers just barely averted meltdown Wednesday by weaving together a patchwork of last-minute, temporary measures to clear up most of a near $940+ million budget shortfall. The state is still $30 million in the hole, and will have to resolve another $800 million deficit come the next fiscal year on July 1— all gifts left behind by former governor Bobby Jindal. Louisiana’s new Governor, John Bel Edwards, has inherited these big shorts, and there is no easy way out.
As the Associated Press reports, Jindal went wild distributing state tax credits, privatizing services, and plundering state reserves during his two terms as governor in the name of keeping his promise to not raise taxes. All this did was leave Louisiana residents “living in a fictional world for the last eight years,” Jindal’s former lieutenant governor, Jay Dardenne, told the AP. (The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)
It’s a fictional world that’s had real consequences as Louisiana residents, mostly African Americans, live daily with the threat of getting absorbed into the one institution that does enjoy budget prioritization: prison. Meanwhile, despite being among the states with the highest cancer and HIV/AIDS rates in the country, Louisiana is now weighing making millions of dollars in cuts to its hospitals and universities to clean up Jindal’s mess. This overall economic disaster is being made worse by the recent precipitous drop in oil prices, which has disrupted the drilling industry Louisiana relies upon heavily.
Louisiana is already starving out needed services, such as public defenders offices, which are overburdened with caseloads in a state notorious for its extreme levels of incarceration—a rep built in part on its historically merciless sentencing rules for drug convictions.
But there is an option that could deliver solutions for the state’s fiscal, criminal justice, and health crises: Legalizing weed.
Over in Colorado, that course of action is paying off for the state handsomely. The legal, regulated sale of marijuana brought in nearly a $1 billion last year, which amounted to $135 million in tax revenue for the state. A study released earlier this month from the Marijuana Policy Group found that a tax on medical marijuana alone could bring Louisiana roughly $13 million a year in new revenue. That kind of windfall would be a true boon for Louisiana. But what’s holding the state back from embracing similar measures is, well, Louisiana.Legalizing weed could deliver solutions for the state’s fiscal, criminal justice, and health crises.
“The prevailing attitude here is this is a conservative, law-and-order state, so I couldn’t see Louisiana being on the forefront of legalizing marijuana,” says Kevin Kane, the president of the New Orleans-based Pelican Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for criminal justice reform in the state. “I do think that probably all states are looking at Colorado and finding that legalizing marijuana could be a big source of revenue. This budget issue here is a huge one, so some legislators might be looking at anything to raise revenues. But politically, legalizing marijuana is not possible now.”
Louisiana did pass a couple of bills last year that reform criminal penalties for marijuana possession and also pave the way for medical marijuana. State lawmaker Dalton Honore, who represents Baton Rouge, is one of a few legislators who’ve been pushing for the state to go further on weed legalization. But no one has been bold enough to call for the state’s full-scale entry into the marijuana market, despite the fact that polls show nearly half of Louisiana residents favor recreational use and a majority approves of medical use.
Louisiana law does not allow citizens to put issues up for vote via statewide ballot initiative or referendum. Only state legislators can create such ballot instruments, but through bills that first must pass through the legislature. Honore attempted this last year, filing a bill that would have put the weed legalization question to voters by placing it on this year’s presidential ballot. But with no support from his colleagues, he ended up shelving the bill.
Even if legislative action finally caught up with the state’s voters, there are plenty of legal obstacles to overcome before marijuana could be legalized, as outlined by NOLA.com’s Kevin Litten. The Hail Mary play here would be a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning federal laws that criminalize weed, the way it did for same-sex marriage. Given SCOTUS’ current Antonin Scalia-less lineup, folks might want to start bringing forward some weed test cases.
Until then, weed advocates will have to find a way through the brick wall that is the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association (which did not respond to requests for comment). It has consistently and vehemently opposed any discussion about weed legalization. Last year, the ACLU of Louisiana was able to get the sheriffs to heel just enough to have them not fight the bill that relaxed sentencing guidelines for marijuana possession. This was an important step toward addressing the state’s incarceration issues. Louisiana sheriffs maintain that their changed position on the matter was about taking “a more practical approach that was geared toward public safety.” Yet the sheriffs remain staunchly opposed to legalization, citing debunked theories that it would increase drug use.
“They are typically our biggest opposition,” Maggie Ellinger-Locke, a legislative analyst for the D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, says of the sheriffs association. “Its not uncommon to have other arguments raised that legalizing marijuana opens the floodgates to legalizing other drugs, or that it would make it more accessible to children. The stats, of course don’t bear this out. We find that in states where it’s legal, minors have access to it at the same rates or sometimes even at lower rates.”
The claim that legalizing weed will push kids to harder drugs is one that will test well in the current political climate, especially with new attention turned to the heroin addiction crisis. But it could be that laws that make marijuana illegal are actually what’s pushing people to heroin. Sarah Skinner, an economics professor at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, explained to CityLab how this is already happening.
Under the market theory of “shipping the good apples out,” or the Alchian-Allen effect, explains Skinner, if the penalty for obtaining stronger drugs is similar to those for obtaining weaker drugs, people will opt for the stronger ones. The demand then drives down the cost of the stronger drugs, putting them within financial reach for those looking for more bang for their buck.
“Looking at the price of marijuana relative to the price of cocaine, when you have prohibition and people can not legally have marijuana, that makes some people want the harder, stronger stuff more than the less intensive drug,” Skinner says. She points to how alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century led to people making cheaper, more toxic brews of moonshine. The economist David Thornton suggests in his book The Economics of Prohibition that the alcohol ban of the 1920s and 1930s may have actually created the market for marijuana:
Alcohol prohibition affected the market for marijuana. As the price of alcohol products increased during Prohibition, the relative price of marijuana fell and its consumption began to rise. It proved to be particularly popular with the lower-income classes who could not afford the high price of alcohol. … Without the exposure that Prohibition provided, marijuana would likely have not become a matter of public concern or national legislation by 1937.
Louisiana sheriffs claim they don’t jail that many people for possessing weed anyway. There’s little data out there to substantiate that claim, but the fiscal notes for the law passed to soften sentencing for weed possession do offer some numbers. Prior to this law, a second possession conviction could mean up to five years in prison, and a third could mean a maximum sentence of 20 years. Those have been reduced to six months and two years, respectively.
In the notes, the state’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections says an average of 306 people had been jailed annually after their second weed possession charge, and given an average sentence of 18 months. The state estimates it will save as much as $3 million in one year by reducing the jail population with these new guidelines. The state expects to save roughy $16 million over the next five years.The state spent more than $46 million in 2010 enforcing marijuana possession laws.
Meanwhile, the ACLU estimates that the state spent as much as $46,450,368 in 2010 enforcing marijuana possession laws. Full legalization could wipe that amount off the state’s books, and throw even more into state coffers if it mustered the courage to actually tax and regulate marijuana.
That would, at the very least, more than cover the $700,000 that the New Orleans Public Defenders Office needs this year to stay afloat. Given that public defenders represent many defendants arrested for pot possession, that would considerably lighten the office’s case load and free up money for them to defend more important cases. (Like the cases they currently have to turn away due to the state’s broken funding apparatus.) While many agree the math on this makes sense for Louisiana, it will still take a long time to change lawmakers’ hearts and minds on full legalization.
“It’s not about years, it’s about events—certain things that need to happen that will trigger legalization,” says Jacob Irving, the communications chair for the Baton Rouge-based Sensible Marijuana Policy for Louisiana. “The sheriffs association has a lot of stake in state prison policies, and you’re gonna have a hard time getting them to support legalization,” he says. “They won’t wake up one day and think that this is a good thing, and they’re not willing to be objective about that. I’m going to keep trying to raise public support, but it won’t happen without sheriff’s support, or a change to the laws at the federal level.”
If Louisiana doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to tax and regulate weed soon, another state surely will—possibly a neighboring or nearby state like Texas or Florida. When Louisiana residents and tax dollars bolt to those states, only then might it realize it blew its opportunity. With the future of oil and fossil fuels murky, Louisiana is already under pressure to diversify its economy. The disastrous conditions of the state’s prison and healthcare systems truly make this an imperative. Louisiana: Legalize it, already.
About the Author
Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.