The effort to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Louisiana, which got further than ever before this year after an unexpected bipartisan push, is over for now.

State Rep. Richard Nelson’s bill to tax the sale of marijuana died on a 47-48 vote Tuesday, well short of the 70 votes needed. After that bill failed, he tabled a vote on the bill to legalize the drug for recreational use.

The influential Louisiana Sheriffs Association helped kill the proposal, but the debate also revealed shifting attitudes about legalization among Republicans and opponents of the idea. The sheriffs’ group committed to study the idea ahead of next year’s legislative session, and several opponents conceded legalization is likely inevitable as the idea was debated by lawmakers.

Thirty-four-year-old Mandeville Republican Nelson, an Eagle Scout who said he has never smoked marijuana, became the unlikely face of the effort to make Louisiana the 18th state to legalize the drug when he filed the legislation this year. His House Bill 699 gained bipartisan support in the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee and became the first legalization instrument to reach the full House for debate.

“It absolutely changed the discussion. Two months ago if you said this was going to be debated on the floor, people would have said you’re nuts,” Nelson said. “People in general support it, regardless of where the politicians are.”

While the legalization effort is dead for now, the House did agree overwhelmingly to a proposal to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, eliminating the possibility for jail time if people are caught with up to half an ounce of pot. House Bill 652 is currently awaiting debate in the state Senate. The Legislature also may allow medical marijuana patients to access the smokable flower of the drug; currently only non-smokable forms like tinctures, gummies and inhalers are allowed.

Nelson’s bill came as opinions around marijuana are shifting in Louisiana and among the state’s lawmakers. Polling has consistently shown the idea is popular in the state, and some Republican lawmakers pointed to data from Baton Rouge pollster John Couvillon showing the idea garners support among Republicans as well as Democrats and Independents.

That survey, which was paid for by a marijuana industry group, found 67% support for legalizing recreational and medical marijuana. Another survey by the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center found recreational marijuana legalization had 55% support overall, and pollsters have said they expect legalization to continue to gain ground in Louisiana. Younger residents overwhelmingly support the idea.

Still, Nelson’s legalization measure was a bridge too far for the state’s heavily-Republican House that was under pressure from the influential Louisiana Sheriffs Association. The sheriffs association lobbied against the bill and sent a note to lawmakers Tuesday asking them to vote “no” on House Bill 699, the legalization bill that never got a vote after the tax bill failed. The note called the bill “rushed and irresponsible” and cited data that found traffic deaths involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana and the yearly rate of emergency room visits increased in Colorado after that state legalized the drug in 2012.

“We must first understand the resources needed to combat these problems,” Mike Ranatza, the executive director of the association, wrote. “We must understand the pitfalls experienced by other states who have legalized marijuana rather than just a quick rush to judgement.”

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Researchers and experts have cautioned against jumping to conclusions about what the data in states that have legalized marijuana proves on car crashes and the like. For instance, accident data is muddied by the fact that states have gotten better at screening for marijuana in drivers at the same time they are legalizing it. Data from Colorado does show hospitalizations increased after legalization, but a 2018 government report found no significant change in youth use of pot.

An unlikely coalition of conservative and progressive advocates lobbied for the bill. The conservative Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and Louisiana Progress Action organized calls and emails to legislators and even paid for polls in Republicans’ districts.

Nelson said he believes more members were supportive of the idea but voted against the tax bill after seeing it didn’t have a chance of reaching the two-thirds threshold needed to pass tax measures.

Legislative analysts estimated Nelson’s tax bill would have raised about $12 million in tax revenue initially and $82 million annually after the market matured over several years. Nelson pegged the revenues at $100 million annually.

Thibodeaux Republican Rep. Bryan Fontenot, a former police officer who is closely aligned with law enforcement groups, objected to Nelson’s bill on the House floor, saying the Legislature should form a study group. The sheriffs support a resolution by Rep. Marcus Bryant, D-New Iberia, to create a study committee on legalizing marijuana and report its findings ahead of the 2022 legislative session. However, tax measures can only be taken up in odd-numbered years, and the Legislature couldn’t pass a tax on marijuana unless lawmakers agreed to a special legislative session to do so.

“This bill doesn’t just fail you and I, this bill fails the people of Louisiana,” Fontenot said, adding he didn’t think enough money was dedicated to law enforcement or mental health issues.

Nelson argued currently, Louisiana isn’t getting any of the tax revenue. He said in an interview he doesn’t want the state to be “last to do everything.”

“It’s not that big of a deal,” he quipped. “It’s just $100 million a year. Louisiana doesn’t need the money.”

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