The New Orleans Police Department plans to take full advantage of a city ordinance going into effect Wednesday that allows cops to issue a ticket for marijuana possession in most cases, rather than using more punitive state regulations.
That means getting caught with a joint — or even a couple of pounds of marijuana — will yield only a summons and a relatively minor fine for adults in most of the city.
But the State Police, who have a heavy presence in the French Quarter as part of an arrangement with City Hall and the tourism industry, still plan to make arrests for marijuana possession under state law, leaving the neighborhood most associated with sin the worst place in New Orleans to get caught with weed.
The discrepancy in how the agencies plan to handle the issue highlights the complications of the city’s new marijuana possession law and the key role that departmental policies will play in which law is enforced.
It’s no small matter: While the highest penalty under the city ordinance is a $100 fine, state law allows repeat offenders to be jailed for up to eight years.
At the NOPD, officers will be instructed to use the city ordinance in most cases, Superintendent Michael Harrison told the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee on Monday. Officers will have to get permission to make arrests and seek tougher state charges in some specific circumstances, Harrison said.
The City Council passed the new marijuana ordinance in March, hoping to cut the local jail population and the number of people being arrested for minor offenses.
The Police Department’s new policies hew largely to those priorities.
Unless an adult suspect is in a drug-free zone or is being arrested on other state charges, cops are instructed to issue a summons under the city’s ordinance.
Officers will also continue to arrest those under 17 because state law does not allow officers to issue them summonses, Harrison said.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry, chairwoman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said her office is looking into whether the city can make changes to that law.
“It makes me crazy that you have to drag a juvenile down to the Youth Study Center every time there’s an offense,” Guidry said. “We do plan to come up with an alternative that will be written into the code that will allow the use of citations for juveniles.”
Cops will be able to call their supervisor to get permission to make an arrest in specific cases that would normally be handled with a summons, Harrison said.
Guidry, who authored the ordinance, said that flexibility is important in cases where an officer encounters a “known bad actor” in possession of marijuana and wants to get that person into custody.
Fines under the new ordinance start at $40 and rise to a maximum of $100 for a fourth conviction.
State law, by contrast, allows up to 15 days in jail and a $300 fine for a first offense, which rises to as much as eight years in jail and a $5,000 fine for a fourth conviction.
Harrison said police will be monitoring how the laws are used to ensure they are being fairly enforced.
That was a key concern for Councilman Jason Williams.
“Sometimes police policy in different municipalities can be different in high-crime areas,” said Williams, who said the council needs to know if marijuana possession is “being treated the same way in every community regardless of statistics.”
State Police, however, will keep using the state law, Capt. Doug Cain said.
“We are going to remain consistent with how we enforce the law in the other 63 parishes,” he said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.