A move to drop marijuana possession to, at worst, a ticketable offense in New Orleans drew no opposition from members of the City Council on Wednesday.
Other members had few comments or questions during a Criminal Justice Committee meeting to discuss Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s proposal, which would allow New Orleans police to issue warnings and small fines rather than stiffer sentences for those found with pot. And the limited discussion that did occur suggested at least some members of the council would go further if they could.
“I’ve watched people spend exorbitant amount of time in jail for crimes that not a single New Orleanian would want them to be in jail for,” said Council President Jason Williams, referencing his work as a defense attorney.
At the same time, the proposal is being viewed with skepticism by the District Attorney’s Office.
Guidry said Wednesday she believes she has the backing of most of the council and that there has been an overwhelmingly positive response since she publicly proposed the measure on Monday.
“People are rethinking the war on drugs and particularly rethinking putting people in jail for victimless nonviolent offenses such as marijuana possession, so we’re simply moving in that direction based on the analysis we’ve done in New Orleans today,” she said.
Guidry couched the move as a way to reduce the number of inmates in the parish jail and to free police to focus on other crimes.
A snapshot of the jail population earlier this month showed four inmates whose only crime was simple marijuana possession, something Guidry said could represent a significant number over the course of a year.
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said after the meeting that Guidry’s proposal was a step in the right direction.
Williams suggested he would support going further as he referred approvingly to legalization in other states, something that would require a change in state law in Louisiana.
“It costs people money, ruins lives while other cities are becoming more progressive and finding new resources in the cash crop of marijuana,” he said.
Council members Jared Brossett, Stacy Head and Nadine Ramsey also were at the meeting but did not commit themselves to supporting Guidry’s proposal.
Representatives of several groups arguing for an overhaul of marijuana laws spoke in favor of the measure.
However, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro is taking a more cautious view of the proposal and weighing whether it will encourage illegal drug use and violence, Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman said after the meeting.
“The District Attorney’s Office just finished prosecuting a horrific shooting case on Bourbon Street in which multiple people were shot and one was killed, and the motivation of that entire event was a marijuana deal gone bad,” Bowman said, referring to the conviction of Trung Le, who prosecutors alleged set off the 2014 Bourbon Street shooting when he was called to the French Quarter after friends were robbed of some marijuana.
Anyone charged under the city ordinance would be prosecuted by the City Attorney’s Office and not the District Attorney’s Office.
The proposal would require police to issue first verbal and then written warnings the first two times they find someone in possession of marijuana. A third offense would result in a $50 fine, and any additional offenses would have a penalty of $100 each.
State law allows fines and jail time on a first offense and up to eight years in prison for a fourth conviction. Even if the measure passes, officers could still elect to use the more punitive state law if they deem it appropriate in individual cases.
New Orleans took the first step toward lowering marijuana arrests in 2010, when another measure sponsored by Guidry gave NOPD officers discretion to issue summonses rather than make arrests for first-offense possession. Since then, the number of arrests for possession has dropped by half.
Guidry said her work on the new ordinance picked up steam after state legislators last year passed a law that reduces the penalties for those caught with marijuana more than once. That law removed mandatory minimums for subsequent offenses, providing an opening for the city to set its own penalties and policies below the state maximums.
The existence of two laws, and the ability for officers to choose between them, has raised some concerns that harsher penalties would be used for minorities, but Guidry said the NOPD now uses summonses instead of arrests at about the same rate for black and white offenders.
ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Majorie Esman said that while she supports the proposed measure, caution is needed to ensure it is applied fairly.
“The city needs to make sure that discretion is used in a balanced way and not to continue to have a disproportionate impact,” Esman said. “I urge caution with regard to the discretion it will provide to officers.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.