Louisiana should not only legalize marijuana; it should also wipe clean the records of those convicted of marijuana crimes | Daniel Schwalm

Marijuana
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

While a bill in the  Louisiana House that would legalize recreational marijuana is still a long shot to become law, the fact that three House Republicans voted in favor of it in committee is a big step forward for a policy change that’s widely viewed as inevitable.

The bill made it  through the committee in part because there’s overwhelming public support for legalization. According to a Pew Research poll, two-thirds of Americans support legalization. Public opinion here in Louisiana is catching up to that number—and even exceeding it in some places. Houma Republican Rep. Tanner Magee said that he commissioned an independent poll that found that 75% of his constituents, including 73% of Republicans, favor legalization.

There’s one one subject that the bill noticeably avoids, however: those who have already been imprisoned for violating state marijuana laws. Legalizing marijuana is a step in the right direction, but it’s an empty victory if it leaves out the thousands of Louisianans who are still in prison for marijuana offenses or who have criminal records because of marijuana offenses.

Will Louisiana fully legalize marijuana? 10 things to know about the debate

The bill to legalize marijuana isn’t a referendum on whether or not anyone should smoke marijuana, as much as some opponents to changing the law would like it to be. Rather, shifting public opinion across the state is coming to reflect a simple truth: Nobody deserves to go to prison for something so harmless. Legalizing recreational marijuana while continuing to punish those who were arrested for being in possession of it would be hypocritical. More and more people are recognizing that marijuana is not a danger to society—so why are those who have used it in the past being treated like they are?

Marijuana prohibition also plays a huge role in perpetuating racism in the criminal justice system. In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana released a report showing that Black people are more than 3 times more likely to be arrested for marijauna possession than White people, even though Black and White people use marijuana at roughly the same rates.

Marijuana is a relatively harmless drug—safer by a significant margin than alcohol, which Louisiana wholeheartedly embraces, both culturally and legally. 

Unlike alcohol, marijuana is effectively impossible to overdose on and doesn’t tend to make people violent. At the very least, it seems marijuana is the lesser of two evils. Yet, it’s treated very differently under the law. Louisiana should let people choose the safer option.

Importantly, legalization will cut organized crime out of the picture—a fact that Rep. Richard Nelson, the Republican sponsor of the legalization bill, cited as a major motivation for proposing it. 

Decriminalizing marijuana and pardoning those already sentenced for it offers us a unique opportunity: Louisiana can simultaneously cut down on crime and reduce the number of people incarcerated.

Marijuana legalization is coming, sooner or later. Loren Lampert, the head of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association recognizes that. Loren Lampert, head of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, acknowledged that at last week’s meeting of the House criminal justice committee hearing where Nelson’s bill was heard. One question will remain after legalization: How many innocent people will it be too late to help?

It’s good to see more and more Republicans coming around on the issue of legalizing marijuana. But they need to see that releasing people and expunging their records of possession arrests and convictions is just as important.

The state legislature has the opportunity to begin to set things right. Marijuana should be legalized. More importantly, however, the thousands of people who are in prison because of unjust marijuana laws or who still have convictions on their record should also be given relief.