Another bill decreasing the penalties for marijuana possession quickly cleared a Senate committee Tuesday.
But the House-passed measure got a major revamp as it morphed into legislation the full Senate approved Monday on a 27-12 vote.
“It’s a better bill than mine,” state Rep. Austin Badon said as he asked the Senate’s Judiciary C Committee to rewrite his House Bill 149.
Badon’s bill became a mirror of Senate Bill 241, sponsored by Sen. J.P. Morrell, also a Democrat from New Orleans. It now heads to the Senate floor for debate. If passed by the Senate, the full House would have to agree on the changes.
The aim of both bills is to reduce penalties associated with possession of small quantities of marijuana. Morrell’s bill provides more of a prison-time break to offenders, including a second chance before advance penalties kick in. Neither the sheriffs or district attorneys association representatives testified against the measure.
Badon’s bill would have retained current sentencing guidelines for a first offense, which call for a maximum of six months, and reduced prison time for second and subsequent offenses.
Morrell’s bill provides more breaks for those in possession of small quantities of marijuana. Someone caught with less than 14 grams of marijuana would face up to 15 days in jail and up to six months if caught with less than 2.5 pounds but more than 14 grams. A second offense conviction would drop from a felony to a misdemeanor with a sentence of no more than six months. Currently, an offender would face up to eight years in prison.
If someone gets caught on a second offense — and it’s been more than two years since the first conviction — the violation would be treated as a first offense.
On a third offense, a felony charge would kick in, carrying a reduced penalty — up to two years in prison — from the current law’s up to 20 years. The maximum prison time on subsequent offenses would drop from 20 years to 8 years.
“It’s a balance between dealing with serious offenders and saving the state much needed revenue,” Badon said. “We are putting people away for non-violent, non-sex offenses, pulling them away from their families, education, jobs.”
The sentence reduction is estimated to save the state $12 million to $15 million over five years with fewer people serving lengthy prison time, he said.
“I thought you had a good bill until you amended it,” said committee Chairman Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe.
Committee members sought assurances that Morrell’s bill that cleared the Senate was being mirrored.
“Yes,” Badon said.