The Louisiana House has approved a bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, taking away the possibility of jail time and reducing the maximum penalty to a $100 fine for possession offenses.
The move, on a 67-to-25 vote Tuesday, would represent a significant step in the effort to loosen Louisiana’s prohibition on marijuana. If approved by the Louisiana Senate, where the legislation heads next, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, Louisiana would become the latest in a string of states to eliminate the possibility of jail time for people caught with small amounts of marijuana.
The Republican-dominated House agreed to House Bill 652 by Rep. Cedric Glover, D-Shreveport. The measure would make the maximum penalty for any possession of up to a half ounce of marijuana $100, with no jail time. Offenders would be issued a summons instead of an arrest.
The legislation drew significant support from Republicans, which dominate the Legislature, and little debate. One of the most conservative members of the House, Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, stood with Glover and Baton Rouge Rep. Denise Marcelle, both Democrats, to support the proposal.
“I think it’s a fairly good compromise,” Seabaugh said.
“We don’t need to be filling up our jails with misdemeanor offenses of marijuana,” Marcelle said.
Currently, Louisiana law says people can face up to $300 or 15 days in jail for the first conviction of possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana. Beyond that, the penalties ramp up considerably, to a potential jail sentence of six months on the second conviction, two years on the third conviction and eight years on the fourth conviction.
If Glover’s bill becomes law, any time someone is caught with under a half ounce of pot, the police can only issue a summons for a fine of up to $100, with no jail time.
Baton Rouge, Shreveport and New Orleans have already taken steps to decriminalize marijuana, and the legislation mirrors an ordinance put in place by Shreveport recently. New Orleans reduced its first offense marijuana penalties to no more than $40, and some city officials want to drop that charge down to $1 to effectively eliminate penalties for small-time marijuana possession.
Baton Rouge in 2018 eliminated the possibility of jail time for possession of less than 14 grams, or half an ounce, of marijuana. The fine is between a maximum of $40 and $100 depending on how many prior offenses the person has.
Glover’s proposal represents one of many bills dealing with marijuana laws in Louisiana during the legislative session that ends June 10th. Another measure, by Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, would legalize marijuana entirely, allowing licensed businesses to sell the drug to people 21 and older.
While Nelson’s bill has drawn heated opposition from law enforcement, Glover’s decriminalization bill has not. The influential Louisiana Sheriffs Association didn’t take a position on HB652. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III told The Advocate recently he is leaning more toward supporting decriminalizing the drug than legalizing it, at least until the state can spend more time studying legalization.
Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, with varying fines.
Louisiana was one of several states where arrests for pot increased from 2010 to 2018, according to a report last year by the American Civil Liberties Union. Black people were more than three times more likely than White people to be arrested for marijuana possession, and arrests for marijuana made up 51% of all drug arrests in the state that year. In East Baton Rouge Parish, Black people were seven times more likely than Whites to be arrested for pot possession.
Attitudes surrounding marijuana have shifted in Louisiana – and in the Legislature – in recent years. Polls have consistently shown a solid majority of Louisianans support not only decriminalizing the drug, but also legalizing it for sale to adults. Still, efforts to legalize the drug remain an uphill climb in the conservative Legislature.
Voting to decriminalize possessing less than a half ounce of marijuana (67): Speaker Schexnayder, Reps Adams, Bacala, Bagley, Bourriaque, Brass, Brown, Bryant, Butler, Carpenter, W. Carter, Cormier, Coussan, Cox, Deshotel, DeVillier, DuBuisson, Duplessis, Echols, Emerson, Farnum, Freeman, Freiberg, Frieman, Gaines, Geymann, Glover, Goudeau, Green, Harris, Hilferty, Hollis, Hughes, Huval, Jefferson, Jenkins, T. Johnson, Jones, Jordan, LaCombe, Landry, Larvadain, Lyons, Marcelle, Marino, McCormick, McFarland, McMahen, D. Miller, G. Miller, Muscarello, Nelson, Newell, Orgeron, R. Owen, Pierre, Romero, Schlegel, Seabaugh, Selders, Stagni, Stefanski, Turner, Villio, White, Willard and Wright.
Voting Against HB652 (25): Reps. Amedee, Carrier, R. Carter, Crews, Edmonds, Edmonston, Firment, Fontenot, Gadberry, Garofalo, Horton, Illg, Ivey, M. Johnson, Kerner, Mack, Miguez, Mincey, C. Owen, Riser, Schamerhorn, Tarver, Thomas, Thompson and Wheat.
Not Voting (13): Reps Beaullieu, Bishop, G. Carter, Davis, Hodges, James, Magee, McKnight, Moore, Phelps, Pressly, St. Blanc, and Zeringue.