The consequences for getting caught smoking pot in Baton Rouge could soon become less drastic.
Police and city prosecutors would have the option of treating people they find with marijuana similar to those they catch speeding, with summonses and fines instead of jail time. The East Baton Rouge Metro Council voted Wednesday night to overhaul its marijuana penalties to make them essentially mirror a New Orleans law adopted in 2016.
The new version of Baton Rouge’s marijuana ordinance would direct police to issue a summons to people they find with less than 14 grams of the drug, and then City Court judges would only be able to impose fines for convictions. Up until now, city law allowed police to arrest people with marijuana and judges to sentence them to jail time. If signed by Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, the new law goes into effect in 30 days.
If convicted with less than 14 grams of marijuana, a first-time offender would owe $40, a second-time offender would owe $60, a third-time offender would owe $80, and all subsequent offenses would require the person to pay $100 each time.
However, under state law, Baton Rouge police officers can still arrest and bring people who have fewer than 14 grams of marijuana to jail. State law also allows judges to fine people up to $300 and up to 15 days of jail time for that amount on a first offense.
Baton Rouge Police Department Chief Murphy Paul told Metro Council members Wednesday that police would only arrest defendants under state charges if the person with marijuana is not cooperating or refuses to give identification to police. If police believe that a person caught with marijuana would not comply with a summons to appear in court, they also would use a state charge, he said.
In a statement after the meeting, Broome said she now plans to "extensively review" the ordinance with the parish attorney's office, but generally celebrated the proposal. Broome said she "has no plans to veto it."
“My position aligns with BRPD and Chief Murphy Paul,” Broome said. “This ordinance will allow us to rededicate resources to felony offenders. It also attaches penalties to possession without the stigma of prison.
“Our current practice is to issue summonses for simple possession of marijuana, and this new ordinance will not change that,” she added.
City law penalties remain the same for people arrested with more than 14 grams of marijuana or synthetic marijuana. Those convicted with more than 14 grams or with synthetic marijuana face $500 fines and six months in jail.
A number of people Wednesday implored the Metro Council to vote in favor of the ordinance change, or even to go a step further and legalize marijuana. Council members were passionate on both sides of the issue, with some arguing that enforcement of marijuana laws unfairly target the black community and clog the criminal justice system. However, others argued that local government needed to send a stronger moral message to young people, and that passing the ordinance would still benefit those who profit from the drug trade.
“I don’t want one of my tax dollars to be spent incarcerating someone for marijuana,” said Jacob Irving, an LSU Law student who has repeatedly advocated at the State Capitol for loosening marijuana laws.
Some who addressed the Metro Council described the rifts between Baton Rouge’s black community and police. They said easing crackdowns on marijuana was a good step toward improving police and community relations, while it would also free up officers to focus on more serious crimes.
“The reality is a lot of people are hopeless,” said Chris Toombs, who also asked the council to vote in favor of the ordinance. “They don’t deserve to go to prison because they got caught with 14 grams of marijuana.”
Members of the public never saw the version of the ordinance that passed on Wednesday evening, as the draft on the city-parish website did not match the one that was debated. The ordinance on the website was an older version that kept higher fines and retained possible jail time as penalties for marijuana conviction, but prevented police from arresting people and ordered them to issue a summons instead.
Metro Councilmen Chandler Loupe and LaMont Cole, who sponsored the ordinance, finalized the new version late Tuesday. They disseminated it to council members but not to the general public, amending the proposal on the floor. The debate grew confusing Wednesday evening as people tried to hash out which iteration of the ordinance was being discussed.
Councilman Scott Wilson described the debate as “clear as mud,” while Councilman Matt Watson asked at one point, “what in the heck are we voting on tonight?”
Cole and Loupe celebrated the ordinance’s passage, with Cole saying that marijuana crackdowns have “destroyed our community” and sent young, black men who smoked pot to prison alongside rapists and murderers.
“I don’t know if I would use the language, ‘let people smoke the weed,’ but I would say, 'let’s not send people to prison,'” Cole said.
Councilman Trae Welch argued, though, that the law change would give people a false sense of security about smoking marijuana. A conviction still amounts to a conviction, even if there’s no jail time involved, he said. And he said the law encourages young people to seek out drug dealers.
“Until there’s a safe place to buy the drugs, why are we sending kids to drug dealers and saying it’s OK?” Welch asked.
Councilwoman Tara Wicker also pushed back against the reasoning that Baton Rouge needed to be more like other cities with more progressive approaches to marijuana. She said that “everybody else is doing it” was not a good enough reason to change the law.
Unlike many issues that come before the Metro Council, the marijuana ordinance had support and opposition from members of both political parties.
Democrats Cole, Chauna Banks, Donna Collins-Lewis and Erika Green voted in favor of the ordinance along with Republicans Loupe, Buddy Amoroso and Barbara Freiberg and Dwight Hudson. Republicans Welch, Watson, and Wilson voted against it, along with Wicker, a Democrat.
Editor's note: This article was updated March 1, 2018 to include Dwight Hudson's vote.