Nelson marijuana bill

Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, presents his bill to legalize marijuana for recreational use on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. 

Republican state Rep. Scott McKnight, a conservative 40-year-old Baton Rouge businessman, was torn over the proposal in the Louisiana Legislature to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

A former reserve deputy in East Baton Rouge Parish, he knew law enforcement has concerns with the idea. But one thing that helped sway McKnight to vote for the bill – making him one of three Republicans to send the proposal out of committee and on to the full House for debate in a historic vote – was public opinion.

"I have not received a negative email or call. I have received a good bit of positive emails," McKnight said. “The tide is changing on this.”

Several polls done this year on the question of legalizing marijuana underscore that truth, and they have given the longshot movement surprising strength. Some lawmakers on the fence have pointed to the fact they have only received positive messages from constituents on the issue. Several pollsters said they expect that drumbeat of support to only get louder in the coming years as Louisiana catches up with the rest of the nation, which overwhelmingly backs legalization.

State Rep. Richard Nelson, a 34-year-old Mandeville Republican who often votes with conservatives in the House, is carrying the bill. He was already putting the effort in motion when John Couvillon, the Baton Rouge pollster, released the results of a survey that found 67% of Louisianans favor legalizing both medicinal and recreational marijuana.

Couvillon’s poll, which was paid for by the Louisiana Association for Therapeutic Alternatives, a medical marijuana industry group, caught many lawmakers’ eyes. The prior year, Couvillon had found 54% support for the same legalization question; the new survey found that even 58% of Republicans support legalization.

That was an important finding, because conservatives around the U.S. have been slower to embrace legal weed than liberals. Louisiana voted for former President Donald Trump by an 18-point margin in 2020; two-thirds of state senators and nearly two-thirds of state representatives are Republicans.

“I think it’s one of those things where public opinion is leaving politicians behind,” Nelson said.

Another recent survey, by the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center, was not quite as bullish on recreational pot as Couvillon’s. But it still found legalization of the recreational use of marijuana had 55% support overall, with 36% opposed and 9% undecided. The poll found Democrats were far more likely to support it, at 66%, than Republicans, at 44%.

“I think public opinion here is catching up to opinion on the issue nationwide,” said Ed Chervenak, the political scientist who conducted the poll.

People in Louisiana are seeing other states cashing in on the crop, Chervenak said, and the generational divides often seen with cultural issues are tilting toward legalization, with younger people strongly favoring it. He expects the trend to continue.

“I don’t know how the legislators are going to respond to it,” Chervenak said. “This is a culturally conservative state. We’ll have to wait and see exactly how far this moves along in the Legislature.”

While legalizing marijuana has been a priority of Democratic lawmakers in recent years, the idea is lately gaining bipartisan steam. Three Republicans voted for it in the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee last week. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group founded by the Koch brothers, has gotten on board.

James Lee, state director of the group, said it is commissioning more polls in the districts of eight conservative House members.

Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, a Houma Republican in a district where three of every four votes went to Trump in 2020, commissioned a poll specific to his district. Conducted by Couvillion, the poll found 77% support for permitting marijuana for recreational use.

“I think that you have basically a generational shift that’s occurred,” Couvillon said. “Those who may have been influenced by the ‘just say no’ campaign by Nancy Reagan and negative messaging around marijuana before that ... that generation is steadily dying off. And it’s being replaced with a generation that’s not quite sure why it's illegal.”

The scoop on state politics in your inbox

Get the Louisiana politics insider details once a week from us. Sign up today.

The proposal has also garnered opposition from the powerful associations representing sheriffs and district attorneys.

Mike Ranatza, the head of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, said he wants to study the issue for a year before considering legalization, cautioning against a “rush to judgment.”

“I want to clearly illustrate to everyone that we’re open-minded to looking into this issue,” he said in an interview. “We really should do an in-depth look at what that road should look like.”

As of this month, 17 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. That means 43% of U.S. adults now live in a place that has legalized the drug for recreational use, according to the Pew Research Center.

Significantly, however, none of the 17 states is in the Deep South, though several states in the region have legalized medical marijuana, including Louisiana.

A significant number of Republicans would need to support legalization in Louisiana for the effort to reach the governor’s desk. If by some miracle that happens, term limits – which have ushered in a whole new generation of lawmakers – may be part of the reason. Polling has consistently shown younger people are far more likely to support legalization.

Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, of Hammond, was one of the three Republicans to vote for Nelson’s bill in committee. He said the thing that really “drove it home” was that the Louisiana Sheriffs Association and Louisiana District Attorneys Association – two key opponents of the legislation – both conceded the drug would be legal eventually.

“What drove my decision is I think the fact that it’s coming. It’s gonna happen,” Muscarello said. “I hate being the last in line every time. If we can provide a service to our state that’s going to drive some tax income, then why not do it?”

Muscarello, who is 46, said there were more “seasoned” legislators running the show years ago, when he was a legislative aide to former lawmaker John Hainkel, an influential New Orleans Republican. In the three years Muscarello has been a lawmaker himself, he said he thinks there are more “forward-thinking” lawmakers that are “more aggressive in the way we approach things.”

Rep. Joe Stagni, a Kenner Republican, said he hasn’t made up his mind yet, but added that he’s leaning toward voting for the bill. He likened the drug’s illegal status to the U.S.’s disastrous experiment with alcohol prohibition, and noted none of the states that have legalized recreational use of marijuana have gone back and criminalized it again.

He, too, believes term limits are having an impact on topics like marijuana. For some of his former colleagues, “this wouldn’t have even been a consideration,” Stagni said.

“It will happen,” Stagni said. “The question for everyone is, is it going to happen now or is it going to happen later?”

Andrew Freedman, who was hired in 2014 by Colorado’s then-Gov. John Hickenlooper to be the first cannabis czar to implement the first adult-use marijuana market, said the issue was a divisive one when it came before voters in 2012. That year, voters approved the ballot proposition to legalize the drug, 54.8% to 45.1%.

Freedman now heads up the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education and Regulation, which he said was launched with the premise that legalization is inevitable in the U.S. The group doesn’t take a stance on whether states should legalize the drug, and instead aims to advance a federal regulatory framework for cannabis.

Since 2012, Freedman said opinions in Colorado have inched steadily toward the idea that legalization was a good move. The opposition isn’t so fervent anymore.

Most of the other states that have legalized marijuana in the ensuing years have done so through ballot referendums.

Legislatures may be timid because legalization is complicated, Freedman said. At the ballot box, voters are faced with a simple yes-or-no question. Lawmakers have to answer “a million questions right off the bat.” For instance: How do you handle people driving while high? How much control should local governments have over marijuana being grown or sold in their backyard? Should the state try to prioritize licenses for minorities?

“Even if it’s popular, but it’s divisive, it’s still a costly thing to vote for,” Freedman said. “Sometimes not taking a vote is the easiest route to take.”

Investigative reporting is more essential than ever, which is why we’ve established the Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund, a non-profit supported by our readers.

To learn more, please click here.