New Orleans’ new marijuana ordinance, approved unanimously last week by the City Council and about to be signed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, is far from an ideal instrument.
It contradicts state law, creating uncertainty over whether any individual simple possession offense might net only a cash fine of $100 or less, or a much more severe penalty of anywhere from $300 to $5,000 — plus a potential prison sentence and criminal record.
It also gives cops discretion over whether to charge a suspect under the city ordinance or state law, a decision that could have far-reaching implications for the people involved. Studies have found that black suspects are more likely to face arrest for possession than white suspects. The department already is operating under a federal civil rights consent decree, and officials will need to keep a close eye on how this plays out.
Despite all that, City Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s measure represents an improvement over the status quo.
It helps the chronically understaffed New Orleans Police Department, because officers can now issue a ticket and get back to work on more pressing matters. It takes pressure off an overstressed criminal justice system, particularly an indigent defender’s office so broke that it has started refusing to take on new clients, prompting a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.
And it gives people who commit low-level offenses a better chance of putting their lives in order, of getting a job, of avoiding being sucked into a downward spiral.
Hopefully, it prevents a replay of the tribulations of Bernard Noble, a middle-aged, employed father of seven who was sentenced to 13 years in prison after being arrested with less than 3 grams of weed, or about enough to roll two joints. Because he had prior convictions for similar offenses, Noble was charged as a habitual offender. He originally was sentenced to five years, a downward departure from the harsh mandatory minimum sentence, but Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro appealed and secured the longer term.
New Orleans’ ordinance is part of a national trend to take it down a notch when it comes to marijuana use and other low-level, nonviolent drug offenses, but Louisiana is nowhere near the forefront of the liberalization. While four states — Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska — have legalized recreational use, proponents had to try several times before the Louisiana Legislature passed a modest measure allowing medical marijuana.
Still, a somewhat surprising bipartisan consensus is emerging. Last year, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a law by Democratic state Rep. Austin Badon, of New Orleans, that dramatically reduced sentences for possession. The law passed the Legislature by wide margins and had support from the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, the ACLU and Catholic bishops.
More telling, Jindal was willing to have his name on it even as he was busy building a more-conservative-than-thou record for his presidential campaign, which tells you how low the temperature has dropped. Despite an organized campaign on Noble’s behalf, though, Jindal also refused to grant him clemency. So whatever compassionate impulses he felt had their limits.
This isn’t Guidry’s first pass at the problem either. In 2010, she sponsored an ordinance to make marijuana possession a municipal offense. That gave officers the ability to issue a summons but did not change state penalties associated with the infraction. She also publicly backed the campaign to free Noble.
“What happened to Mr. Noble is not what our city is working toward. It is not,” she said at a 2015 rally on his behalf.
During last week’s council meeting on the subject, Guidry echoed that thought. “Our hope is that fewer people will be brought to jail and fewer people will have their lives disrupted,” she said.
Her ordinance amounts to a small step toward bringing the punishment more in line with the offense. But it is a step in the right direction.