Amid a broader debate about Louisiana’s strict marijuana laws, a House legal committee Wednesday approved a bill that would cut the 20-year maximum sentence for simple marijuana possession down to eight years.
But a widely opposed measure that would have asked Louisiana voters to decide if pot should be legal was withdrawn from consideration by the bill’s sponsor before the same committee could debate its merits.
“Time is changing ... and we need to take this serious.” said Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge, who sponsored House Bill 117, which called for a parish-by-parish vote on pot legalization.
Honoré said Louisiana spends an inordinate amount of money incarcerating more people per capita than any other state. Meanwhile, in Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, millions have been made in taxes on marijuana, while jail populations have plummeted, he said.
“I’m thinking about the lives it’s ruined of young people,” Honoré said, describing his bill before pulling it from consideration. “A criminal record will follow you almost the rest of your life.”
Honoré acknowledged that his bill was not well received both among lawmakers and state law enforcement associations.
But what lawmakers did find palatable was the marijuana sentencing reduction measure, House Bill 149, sponsored by Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans. That measure passed on a 10-4 vote and now goes to the full House for consideration.
The bill would retain current sentencing guidelines for a first offense, which call for a maximum of six months. But prison time for a second offense would reduce from five years to two years. A third conviction — which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years — would be reduced to a five-year maximum. A fourth conviction would have an 8-year sentence cap.
Badon said it was unjust that someone could be sentenced to 20 years in prison for possessing two joints while former New Orleans Saints player Darren Sharper only received eight years for sexually assaulting women whom he rendered unconscious using powerful drugs.
“These sentences are severe and egregious,” Badon said. “These offenders are hurting only themselves. The system pulls them out of their families, the system makes them lose their jobs, the system pulls them out of educational facilities and the taxpayers have to pay for them.”
Badon’s bill is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union because it doesn’t go far enough to reduce marijuana sentences, said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the organization’s Louisiana chapter.
“This bill will do nothing to keep people from being arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned, Esman said. “They will still face stiff prison sentences.”
A separate bill sponsored by Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, would reduce sentences more drastically, decriminalizing a first offense and capping jail time for repeat offenders at 30 days. It hasn’t yet received a hearing.
Badon acknowledged critics of his measure but said: “In Louisiana, this is where we are. It seems to be the bill that everyone is coalescing around.”