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Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, right, speaks with Rep. Barbara Freiberg, R-Baton Rouge, during legislative session in the Louisiana House of Representatives, Tuesday, May 4, 2021, at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.

Proponents and opponents of legalizing recreational marijuana are both mounting a furious last-minute lobbying effort ahead of a potentially decisive vote Monday on a bill before Louisiana’s conservative House of Representatives.

The state’s sheriffs, who enjoy huge influence at the State Capitol, are asking lawmakers to vote “no” on Rep. Richard Nelson’s House Bill 699, which would legalize the drug for recreational use by adults over 21. They claim the measure, which has shown surprising viability, is rushed and ignores the downsides of legalization other states have experienced. On Saturday, the Louisiana Republican Party, which rarely wades into legislative issues, issued a "call to action" urging people to contact their lawmakers to get them to vote down the bill. 

Meanwhile, proponents, including the conservative group Americans for Prosperity and the progressive Louisiana Progress Action – which has partnered with the national Marijuana Policy Project – are phone-banking and advertising online to get people to urge their legislators to vote “yes.”

Nelson, a Mandeville Republican, said he’s working on changes to the bill to make it more palatable to the House, where many members remain skeptical of legalization. He delayed a scheduled vote on the bill last week, saying he was a few votes shy of a majority.

Nelson’s gambit remains a long shot. If his HB699 passes the House, it would still need approval by the state Senate, which is generally more skeptical of looser pot laws, and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has said he opposes legalization.

As the improbable effort has gained steam, opponents have put forth a host of claims about the pitfalls of legalizing the drug, including that teen use and suicides will rise, traffic accidents will skyrocket, and the black market will continue to thrive. The head of the District Attorneys Association suggested legalization could prompt an influx of grow houses that in turn could shut the electrical grid down in Baton Rouge.

“Almost everything they say, they’re just grasping at straws,” Nelson said, pointing to data that shows Louisiana has more highway deaths per capita than Colorado, which legalized cannabis almost a decade ago. “They just take most of the research out of context, they don’t read it.”

Experts caution that many of the sweeping claims about legalization can’t be backed up by data yet.

"There's no peer-reviewed causation studies that show, because of X, Y,” said Andrew Freedman, who served as Colorado’s first cannabis czar under then-Gov. John Hickenlooper. “There's plenty of speculation around correlation. Some of it reaching levels of silly. Like, you can't really decide that cannabis legalization caused this blip in crime when at the same time there was a pandemic."

Freedman, who now runs a national organization that aims to inform a federal regulatory framework for the inevitable national legalization of cannabis, said in an interview that there are trends that are “worth keeping an eye on,” like data showing more people in fatal car crashes had cannabis in their system.

But youth use hasn’t shot up in Colorado and other states that have legalized the drug, he said. And accident data is muddied by the fact that states that legalized pot have gotten better at screening for it.

Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of operations research and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said “amazingly, the news with the kids is better than we thought it was going to be.”

Youth pot use was a reasonable thing to worry about, Caulkins said, but the available data shows it has remained flat, even if it hasn’t declined like youth alcohol and tobacco trends.

Caulkins said the effects of cannabis use is more comparable to the effects of overindulging in video games than of drinking.

“Cannabis’s downsides are not suicide, it’s not violence, it’s certainly not overdose,” he said. “If cannabis is going to have a downside ... it’s going to be more likely to be just sort of it’s a ‘bad habit’ kind of thing.”

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However, Caulkins said there are reasons to be concerned about a rush to legalization, and he favors moving slowly on creating private markets for the drug. He said in 25 years, legalization could turn out to be fine, but it could also turn out to have created another influential industry similar to Big Tobacco that caused more adults to start using marijuana daily.

The Louisiana Sheriffs Association has long been opposed to legalizing marijuana. But several sheriffs, district attorneys and other opponents have acknowledged this year that its ultimate legalization is inevitable. Still, the association sent a note to House members last week asking them to vote against Nelson’s bill.

“We must first understand the pitfalls experienced by other states who have legalized it rather than a quick rush to judgement,” the note said. “We also must oppose this bill because marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug – a federal crime – and sheriffs took an oath to uphold federal and state laws.”

Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard, the association’s president, said in a statement that the group supports a resolution by state Rep. Marcus Bryant to study legalization and issue recommendations ahead of the 2022 session.

Sheriffs across the state have been calling members in recent days to lobby them against the bill. Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi said he was “a little bit surprised” some of the members he spoke with seemed open to legalization.

“I do oppose it,” Stassi said. “For 20 years, 40 years, surely the years I've been sheriff, we’ve taught our kids to say no to drugs. I believe that marijuana is a gateway drug to the harder stuff. I think that if we start weakening on one thing, the next thing is we’ll be weakening on every level. It’s just a line I don't think we should cross.”

Colorado and Washington became the first states to vote for legalization in 2012, and the product came to the market in 2014. A few years later, both states did reports on the consequences, which several experts praised as solid analyses of legalization’s effects.

A 2019 report found “no significant trends” in the marijuana use among Washington youth, dramatic drops in arrests and convictions for marijuana crimes, and a stable level of school suspensions and expulsions. It also found adult use of marijuana increased each year and calls to poison centers for marijuana incidents increased, among other things.

Colorado’s 2018 report found no significant change in marijuana use among youth, and dramatic drops in arrests for marijuana crimes. It also showed the number of adults who reported using marijuana in the past month ticked up slightly, from 13.6% in 2014 to 15.5% in 2017. Hospitalization for marijuana issues increased in the year after legalization, and poison control calls related to pot had increased up until legalization, then stabilized.

Louisiana had one of the highest marijuana possession arrest rates in 2018, according to a 2020 report by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was one of several states where marijuana arrest rates increased from 2010 to 2018, rising by 18% over that period. The report also found Black people were 3.4 times more likely than White people to be arrested for marijuana possession. In East Baton Rouge Parish, the disparity was the largest in the state, with Black people 7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than White people.

Beyond the legalization bill, the House is also expected to debate two different measures to decriminalize marijuana this week. House Bill 652 by Democratic Rep. Cedric Glover, a former Shreveport mayor, mirrored Shreveport’s local loosening of pot enforcement and is supported by one of the House's most conservative members, Republican Rep. Alan Seabaugh, who also represents parts of the state's third largest city. Seabaugh says he’s not ready to vote to legalize marijuana, but can support making every possession offense a misdemeanor with no jail time.

“I do think we’re moving in that direction,” Seabaugh said of legalization. “I just don’t want to move in that direction too fast.”

Sheriffs and other opponents have also worried about a new black market that could arise after legalization, with illegal grow operations designed to ship marijuana elsewhere.

Caulkins, of Carnegie Mellon, said the nation’s scattershot approach to marijuana enforcement has created that opportunity. But he expects that with national legalization, legal producers will eventually be able to out-compete the illegal market.

Hillar C. Moore III, the district attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish, has been studying the issue intensely, reviewing a host of studies from other states. Moore says he’s leaning more toward decriminalizing marijuana, and thinks more time should be devoted to studying full legalization, including hearing from mental health experts.

Rep. Tanner Magee, the Republican speaker pro tem of the House, said he hasn’t decided how he’ll vote on the bill. But he said Nelson’s effort has prompted members to take legalization much more seriously than they ever have.

“That’s a sea change that we’re talking about details of it,” Magee said. “People are debating the merits of pieces of it in a real way, not just pro or against.”

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