Nelson marijuana bill

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

A Louisiana House committee has advanced a proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use, sending the bill to the full state House in a key milestone for the effort to end the state’s prohibition on the drug.

The House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee advanced House Bill 524 by Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, on a 7-5 vote Tuesday after an impassioned debate. Nelson’s proposal to legalize the drug for recreational use picked up the support of two other Republicans as well as several Democrats, despite opposition from district attorneys and sheriffs who are influential players at the State Capitol.

The legislation still has a long, difficult road to becoming law. The full House and Senate, which are dominated by Republicans, must approve the measure. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who has said he opposes recreational marijuana, would also need to sign on.

Still, the committee’s vote is the latest indication that opinions on marijuana are shifting in the Legislature, especially among Republicans who have long opposed loosening pot laws. The conservative group Americans for Prosperity is launching an ad campaign in support of the bill.

Nelson, a 34-year-old engineer from Mandeville, became the surprise face of the effort this year when he filed his bill to let citizens vote on legalization. For years, Democrats have pushed similar bills to no avail in the conservative Legislature. A Republican who was an Eagle Scout as a teen, Nelson often votes with the House’s conservative faction of lawmakers, and he said he has never smoked marijuana.

But Nelson said he believes the state’s prohibition of the drug is a failed experiment. Marijuana use already is prevalent, and Louisiana is missing out on hundreds of millions in tax revenue, Nelson argued.

On Tuesday, he made revisions to his bill to strip out the public vote – citing what he said was a Louisiana Supreme Court case from the 1930s that found doing so on the question of alcohol prohibition violated the state Constitution – but allow parishes to opt out and not allow the sale of pot. To do a referendum, Nelson would have to propose an amendment to the state constitution, but that requires a much higher hurdle: two-thirds support in both the House and Senate.

A majority of Louisianans support the legalization of marijuana, several polls in recent years have shown.

“Marijuana is more popular than Donald Trump in Louisiana,” Nelson said in one exchange with Rep. Bryan Fontenot, a Republican who opposed the bill.

Fontenot said he doesn’t “necessarily believe in polls.” But he agreed “the state is certainly moving in that direction.”

“Personally, I'm not there yet because I'm always going to stand with our law enforcement partners,” Fontenot said. “I do think eventually they’re going to come on board.”

It’s not clear what Edwards would do if the bill reached his desk. The son and brother of sheriffs, Edwards has long said he supports medical marijuana but opposes recreational use of the drug. Asked about the bill Tuesday, Edwards didn't say whether he supports or opposes it. 

"As I almost always do, I’ll take a bill as it arrives on my desk and see what it contains," Edwards said. "I’m not going to speculate now on that. But I do have great interest in that bill and what it says especially if it does make it up to the fourth floor.”

Other opponents of the bill conceded legalization is likely on the horizon in Louisiana, as a parade of states continue to legalize the drug for adult use and public support grows. As of early April, more than 40% of Americans lived in states that have legalized recreational marijuana, according to Politico.

Loren Lampert, head of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said he recognizes legalization may be inevitable. But he recommended lawmakers spend two or three years studying the issue. “There are going to be a lot of pieces to this puzzle that have never been discussed or anticipated,” Lampert said.

Mike Ranatza, head of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, said he believes legalization will increase traffic fatalities, teen suicides and lead to new criminal activity that didn’t exist before. He pointed to a Colorado government report that found that, after legalization, marijuana was found in the system of more people who died by suicide, though the study said it can’t be interpreted as causing suicide.

“Is $100 million worth the death of my child, my grandchild?” Ranatza said, referring to the estimated $100 million in tax revenue Nelson estimates the state would receive initially.

Proponents of the bill pointed to studies showing youth rates of marijuana usage remained stable in states that legalized the drug, among other data. Rep. Joe Marino, No Party-Gretna, argued the benefits of legalizing the drug outweigh the downsides. He suggested alcohol presents more dangers than pot, but that prohibition of that drug failed.

Americans for Prosperity, the Libertarian-leaning group that often lobbies against tax hikes, is throwing its weight behind legalization for the first time in Louisiana. James Lee, AFP’s state director, said the group will spend several thousand dollars on advertising to support Nelson’s bill.

“We know it’s going to be a big battle on the floor,” Lee said. He added Louisiana’s pot laws are “not working.”

Rep. Scott McKnight, a Baton Rouge Republican, said he was torn over the issue, with a desire to support law enforcement competing with what a recent poll by John Couvillon on behalf of a marijuana industry group showed: Baton Rouge-area residents overwhelmingly want marijuana to be legalized, at 72% support.

“Whether it happens this time … At least we’re stepping closer to get this done,” McKnight said.

Rep. Marcus Bryant, D-New Iberia, took a walk during the vote. Bryant, who supports legalization, said he's working with stakeholders on a study resolution for legalizing pot in case Nelson's bill fails, though he will vote in favor of Nelson's bill on the House floor. 

Voting to legalize the recreational use of marijuana (7): Chairman Ted James, D-Baton Rouge; Reps Frederick Jones, D-Monroe; C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge; Joseph Marino III, No Party-Gretna; Scott McKnight, R-Baton Rouge; Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond; And Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville.

Voting against HB524 (5): Reps Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville; Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux; Jonathan Goudeau, R-Lafayette; Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport; and Debbie Villio, R-Kenner.

Not Voting (1): Rep. Marcus Anthony Bryant, D-New Iberia.

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