Grace notes: New Orleans' new pot ordinance doesn't turn city into 'Colorado South,' but... _lowres

This Oct. 26, 2010 file photo shows a marijuana plant flourishing under grow lights at a warehouse in Denver. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)

It’s a little unnerving to think of the discretion that New Orleans’ newly approved marijuana ordinance will grant police.

The new city rules, adopted unanimously by the City Council Thursday and now headed to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s desk for his expected signature, impose $40 to $100 fines for low-level possession, rather than the larger fines, possible jail time and marks on offenders’ permanent records allowed for under state law.

How New Orleans cops and other law enforcement officers who operate in the city will determine which law to apply is unclear, and the potential for abuse is obvious. Yet the new approach, championed by Councilwoman Susan Guidry, is still an improvement on the status quo.

It’s better for the short-staffed New Orleans Police Department, which will be able to focus its resources on more serious crimes. Guidry said at Thursday’s hearing that police officers typically spend about six hours on an arrest; allowing them to issue a summons instead won’t take them off the street for long stretches.

It’s better for an overtaxed criminal justice system, particularly given the indigent defender office’s ongoing funding crisis.

It’s way better for those who commit the sort of infractions that can, under state law, send their lives into a downward spiral. It’s no secret that this sort of thing happens to those with fewest resources to begin with, and arrests and criminal records make it that much harder for people who’ve made a relatively minor mistake to recover and forge a more productive path.

New Orleans’ laissez-faire spirit aside, the new ordinance doesn’t suddenly turn the city into Colorado South. Nor does it bring to a satisfactory conclusion the question over how the law should view marijuana use.

That’s an ongoing national discussion, one that also touches more progressive places where pot’s been decriminalized. Even there, permissive state laws contradict federal law.

Against that backdrop, this ordinance amounts to New Orleans’ small contribution to a much larger conversation. But it’s a potentially productive one.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.