James Gill: New Orleans has welcome mat out for potheads; it's about to be even more accommodating too _lowres

Advocate Photo by VERONICA DOMINACH-- Susan Guidry, Councilwomen District A, hops on a bike as city leaders and community members rally to announce the upcoming NOLA Bike to Work Week- a city wide initiative presented by Entergy, Bike Easy, NiteRider and Bike Law Louisiana in New Orleans, La. on Wednesday, April 8, 2015. The 4th Annual NOLA Bike to Work Day will take place April 13th-17th, 2015 in Louisiana.

If you smoke marijuana, don’t try to understand the law on smoking it in New Orleans.

Weed and municipal ordinances don’t mix. You’ll be more confused than ever.

Still, there is no doubt about what you should do if you fancy a joint in, say, Metairie. Head east across the parish line.

New Orleans has the welcome mat out for potheads and is about to become even more accommodating. You get busted toking on Bourbon Street, and the cops might let you off with a warning. That’s what the ordinances say.

But here’s where the head starts to swim because state law tells a different story. Although the Legislature eased marijuana penalties somewhat last year, that same joint will get you hauled off to the slammer. It all depends on how the cops feel because they are free to apply either state or city law. And if, as seems likely, you are smoking in the Quarter, confusion becomes, worse, confounded because both the New Orleans Police Department and State Police patrol there.

If New Orleans cops make a simple bust, they probably will plump for the lenient city version, reserving a collar under the state statute for when other offenses also are suspected.

But relying on the discretion of cops is not always a guarantee of justice, racial or otherwise. Maybe you don’t need to be a pothead to despair of getting a handle on public policy on weed in New Orleans.

With the mood nationwide turning against harsh punishment for possession of narcotics, New Orleans City Councilwoman Susan Guidry led the charge in 2010 to give police the option of issuing a summons rather than making an arrest for possession of marijuana. Arrests naturally became much less common.

Now Guidry proposes to go even softer, with an ordinance prescribing a verbal warning for a first offense, a written warning for a second, a $50 fine for a third and, thereafter, a maximum of $100 a pop ad infinitum.

At a meeting of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, which she leads, Guidry said the aim was to encourage police to concentrate on more serious crimes and to quit clogging up the slammer with harmless dopers. The ordinance seems certain to pass.

Absent from the meeting, however, was Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, whose attitude to lawbreakers is naturally somewhat less sympathetic. He and Guidry already are at odds over the trial and punishment of juvenile offenders. District Attorneys have the discretion to transfer young hoodlums to the much sterner jurisdiction of Criminal District Court, an option Guidry believes Cannizzaro exercises too often, and she has drafted a resolution urging him to adopt what she sees as a more enlightened approach.

It’s his call in the end, and it remains to be seen what deference he is willing to give the council’s views. But, when it comes to dope penalties under city law, the council rules, and it seems that marijuana smokers would be well advised to flock to New Orleans. If they stay in another parish, where cops can only enforce state law, a first offense for marijuana possession can mean 15 days in jail for less than 14 grams, six months for more. Penalties escalate so that an offender’s fourth offense can be sentenced to eight years, whereas, under Guidry’s ordinance, he could just open his wallet, peel off a bill and light another joint.

Cannizzaro is evidently alarmed by the prospect that cops will de-emphasize drug enforcement in New Orleans because he does not accept that it distracts them from more serious crimes. Indeed, the opposite is often the case, his spokesman Christopher Bowman says.

When dopers get busted, they often turn out to be engaged in other, more antisocial, forms of mischief. They are evidently too befuddled to remember the axiom that breaking two laws at the same time is asking for trouble.

Bowman cites a news release sent out by NOPD at Mardi Gras, reporting that 30 illegal guns had been confiscated in 12 days along parade routes. Although views on pot may differ, it is presumably universally accepted that one of the cops’ top priorities must be to ensure that no more Carnival revelers get caught in crossfire.

Of the 30 suspects found to be illegally armed along parade routes, no fewer than 20 attracted the attention of the cops only because they were smoking marijuana. That, according to Bowman, is cause to doubt the wisdom of the Guidry ordinance.

But dopers still could be patted down if suspected of violating it, so maybe public safety would not be much affected. New Orleans will certainly hope so as it sets out the welcome mat.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.