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Gov. John Bel Edwards has signed into law a bill that takes away the possibility of jail time for possession of small amounts of marijuana, the latest shift away from Louisiana’s historically punitive stance on the drug.

Edwards, a Democrat who is often aligned with the state’s sheriffs and has long opposed legalizing marijuana, signed House Bill 652 by Rep. Cedric Glover, D-Shreveport, hailing it as a criminal justice reform effort. Edwards has signed 212 bills into law, so far, from the legislative session that ended June 10. 

Glover’s bill gained steam in the two-month legislative session that ended last week after a Republican-sponsored bill to legalize marijuana narrowly failed in the state House. The push indicated a growing willingness by the conservative Legislature to look at loosening the state’s tight laws surrounding marijuana. A task force is expected to study legalization of marijuana ahead of next year’s session.

Advocates said Glover’s bill to decriminalize the possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana would keep people from going to jail for a drug that is legal in 17 other states. Twenty-seven states have passed similar decriminalization laws – which are a step short of legalization – by taking away jail time as a penalty for small amounts of pot. The fines and amounts of marijuana those laws apply to vary by state.

Edwards, like some lawmakers backing the bill, disputed that the legislation amounts to “decriminalizing” marijuana, since violators can still be hit with penalties. “Instead, anyone convicted of this crime will now be subject to a maximum penalty of $100 instead of being exposed to parish prison time,” he said in a statement.

“This is not a decision I took lightly. In addition to carefully reviewing the bill, I also believe deeply that the state of Louisiana should no longer incarcerate people for minor legal infractions, especially those that are legal in many states, that can ruin lives and destroy families, as well as cost taxpayers greatly,” Edwards said. “This measure passed Louisiana’s Legislature with bipartisan support following a robust discussion of the toll of over incarceration on our people and our state. Taking this action is another step forward for Louisiana’s criminal justice reform efforts.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures, which advises lawmakers around the country and tracks legislation, defines decriminalization as making possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil infraction or the lowest class of misdemeanor, with no possibility of jail time. Louisiana’s law does that, making each possession offense of a half-ounce or less a misdemeanor with no possible jail time. Instead, offenders will get a summons for a fine of up to $100.

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Advocates pushing the bill agreed it was a decriminalization measure, though many wanted lawmakers to go further in reducing the possible fine. 

“Louisiana just became the first state in the Deep South to significantly decriminalize marijuana possession because there was a collective realization that the current prohibition regime is serving the interests of few, if any, people in our state," said Peter Robins-Brown, policy and advocacy director at Louisiana Progress Action, which pushed the bill in the Legislature. "We hope this is just the first of many common-sense reforms to Louisiana’s marijuana laws, and yet another important step toward ending our state’s over-incarceration crisis.”

The Louisiana Sheriffs Association, an influential force at the State Capitol, helped kill the bill by Republican state Rep. Richard Nelson, of Mandeville, to fully legalize marijuana. But the organization stayed neutral on Glover’s decriminalization bill.

The Louisiana District Attorneys Association stayed neutral on the bill, but East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III weighed in on its behalf. In a lengthy report sent to lawmakers on the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana, Moore's office wrote that he “supports HB No. 652 to reduce criminal penalties for possession of marijuana under a certain amount (or ‘decriminalization’ of possession).”

Under the previous law, people caught with a half-ounce of pot were subject to a $300 fine or 15 days in jail on the first offense. For subsequent offenses, the penalties ramped up significantly.

On the second conviction, people could be jailed for six months. On the fourth conviction, they could be jailed for up to eight years.

Under the new law, people caught with up to a half-ounce – no matter how many offenses they rack up – will be subject to a summons and a fine of up to $100. The law is similar to decriminalization ordinances already passed in Baton Rouge, Shreveport and New Orleans. In New Orleans, possession of small amounts of marijuana carries a $40 fine, though some local officials are trying to reduce penalties further.

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