At a time when several states are decriminalizing marijuana, the American Civil Liberties Union released a poll Thursday that shows slightly more than half of Louisiana voters favor treating pot almost the same as alcohol and cigarettes.
A majority — 53 percent of the 636 Louisiana voters surveyed July 31 and Aug. 1 — said they support taxing and regulating marijuana for use by people over the age of 21.
Thirty-seven percent opposed legalization, according to the survey conducted by Public Policy Polling, of Raleigh, N.C., which handles largely Democratic candidates.
The poll seems to suggest that older respondents in Baton Rouge are more supportive of reshaping Louisiana law to reflect something like that of Colorado and Washington, which regulates and taxes marijuana.
Of people questioned between the ages of 35 and 49 in the New Orleans area, 43 percent supported liberalizing marijuana.
The highest group of supporters were in the 18-to-34 age category. Statewide, 63 percent in that age group supported changing the law.
In Baton Rouge, where close to 50,000 college students live, the highest group of liberalization supporters, 67 percent, came from those between 35 and 49 years of age, according to the poll’s “crosstabs.” Only half the respondents in the 18- to 34- year-old category backed regulation and taxation.
Regardless of the poll, which prompted chuckles from several lawmakers, some legislators are seriously looking at the possibility of at least ratcheting back long prison terms that accompany some crimes involving marijuana.
State Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge, said that as a law enforcement officer — he’s now retired — he spent too much time on the streets enforcing simple marijuana possession laws rather than focusing on more serious crimes.
“We need to look at treatment for most marijuana users, instead of incarceration,” Honoré said. He wants to study the issue, then come up with legislation. He’d prefer to legalize pot, but likely would go with a bill that lowers the penalties.
“We need to get our foot in the door,” Honoré said. “Nobody, in this Legislature at least, wants to be the guy to come out and say it.”
State Rep. Joseph Lopinto III, R-Metarie, and chairman of the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice, said if a legislator brings a proposal, he would schedule a hearing.
“It’s not a decision I’ve had to face,” said Lopinto, who was a police officer before becoming a lawyer.
He said legislators eventually may approve legislation to reduce sentences for marijuana, but he doubts any move to legalize would win enough support.
For prosecutors, marijuana cases can be time consuming, requiring at least three court appearances, said Greg Thompson, a former assistant district attorney in Orleans Parish.
“Every minute you spend on one of these marijuana second and third (offenses) would be taking away time from what you really, really want to do as a prosecutor. You want to get that murderer. You want to get that rapist,” Thompson said.
G. Paul Marx, the public defender for the 15th Judicial District, which covers Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes, estimated about half the prosecutions in his district involve substance abuse and about half of those drug charges involve marijuana.
Studies show that marijuana is the gateway drug to the judicial system, which exposes youngsters to much more serious and violent criminals, said Ceclie C. Guinn, director of the LSU Office of Social Service Research and Development.
“It’s mixing up kids going through a developmental phase with kids who really are hardened criminals,” Guinn said.
“The more we can prevent young people from getting into the system, the better off we’re going to be,” he said. “We need to spend our resources on violent criminals, or have serious drug problems.”
That was one reason state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, filed House Bill 103 during the general legislative session that ended in June.
“I felt that this was simple marijuana possession. These were people who were not pushers,” said Badon, a former corrections officer.
HB103 would have reduced sentences for simple marijuana possession from 20 years in prison to two years for a third offense conviction.
It would have set maximum jail time for subsequent offenses at five years. The House watered down the legislation before passing it to the state Senate, where HB103 died.
“This new poll also shows that a majority of Louisiana voters think it’s time to change the state’s outdated and overly harsh marijuana sentencing laws,” said Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the ACLU, in a prepared statement.
“The ACLU stands with the 59 percent of Louisianans who oppose long prison sentences, and 64 percent who oppose a sentence of life without parole for a marijuana offense.”
The executive director of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference, the Rev. Dan Kurtz, said the ACLU poll is showing what he has felt for some time now: People are understanding the distinctions between a user and a supplier.
“There is room for us to have some mercy for those who have been caught with small amounts. People are ready to accept the distinction,” Krutz said.