Louisiana won’t legalize recreational marijuana this year

The House voted down a proposal to tax marijuana, killing the entire proposal for the year

By: - May 18, 2021 6:42 pm
A worker at an indoor medical marijuana facility sprays plants.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The push to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Louisiana died Tuesday, when the Louisiana House rejected legislation to tax recreational marijuana. The proposed tax needed 70 House votes — two-thirds of the chamber — to pass. It only got 47 votes. 

After the tax bill failed, Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, shelved a second, separate bill to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Legislators were less likely to take risk and vote for full marijuana legalization without a marijuana tax bill to accompany it.

The Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association is opposed to legalizing marijuana for recreational use and leaned on lawmakers to vote against the proposal.  Sheriffs are among the most powerful elected officials in the state, especially in the rural areas that many legislators represent. 

Nelson said he believes the opposition from sheriffs and — to a lesser extent — district attorneys killed his recreational marijuana legalization. Several legislators told Nelson they would not vote for his proposal because their local sheriffs and district attorneys want them to vote against it.

“Most people are not opposed to it, but they tell me, ‘My sheriff and my DA told me to vote against it so I’m going to vote against it,’” he said in an interview. 

The bill to legalize recreational marijuana wouldn’t have taken as many votes to pass as the marijuana tax bill. The House could have approved it with 53 votes — as opposed to 70 votes — but Nelson’s marijuana tax still didn’t meet the lower threshold for approval. Nelson only got 47 votes for the tax — six votes short of what was needed to pass recreational marijuana legalization. 

Failure this session means recreational marijuana legalization is likely off the table in Louisiana until at least 2023. The Legislature is not allowed to vote on any tax increases — including a new marijuana tax — during lawmaking sessions held in even-numbered years. But 2023 will also be an election year for state lawmakers, which could make recreational marijuana harder to get through the Legislature that year as well. Legislators shy away from controversial topics when they are facing re-election. 

Still, a recent poll showed that Louisiana residents overwhelmingly support recreational marijuana legalization. Two thirds of people surveyed earlier this year on the issue — including more than half of Republicans — said they would support marijuana legalization for recreational use.

Opponents to marijuana legalization are pushing for a study of recreational marijuana legalization, a suggestion that frustrated Nelson. 

“We all love studies,” Nelson said shortly before his marijuana tax bill failed. “We all love doing nothing.”

“I want to get rid of that idea that we always have to be last,” Nelson said in an interview Tuesday evening. “Anyone who has a legitimate interest in solving this problem can fix it.”

Rep. Marcus Bryant, D-New Iberia, has filed legislation that would call for the House to study the legalization of marijuana and put together a report on the subject before the beginning of the 2022 legislative session. His legislation hasn’t come up for consideration, but could start moving now that Nelson’s recreational marijuana legalization proposal has been killed.

While full marijuana legalization may be dead for at least a couple of years, lawmakers could still decriminalize possession of modest amounts of marijuana for personal use statewide in the coming weeks.

House Bill 652, by Shreveport Rep. Cedric Glover, would eliminate the possibility of jail or prison time for people caught with 14 grams or fewer of marijuana. Glover’s bill has already cleared the House and is awaiting consideration in the Senate.

House Bill 391, by Houma Rep. Tanner Magee, would also allow people to purchase medical marijuana in the raw, plant form for the first time in Louisiana. Currently, medical marijuana is only available in liquid form. Magee’s proposal is also awaiting consideration in the Senate after passing the House.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.