Commentary

Sheriffs oppose marijuana legalization because sheriffs profit from marijuana’s prohibition | Jarvis DeBerry

May 21, 2021 12:28 pm
Marijuana

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

During that embarrassingly brief moment when Louisiana moved from the world’s most prolific incarcerator to the world’s second most prolific incarcerator, the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association went running to the Legislature for more money. While the general public likely interpreted fewer people locked up as a good thing, the sheriffs saw it as a problem that required the Legislature’s intervention. Because the state was asking them to incarcerate fewer people in parish jails, the sheriffs said, the state needed to pay them more money for every person they wanted the sheriffs to lock up.

And the Legislature said OK.

Lawmakers did the sheriffs’ bidding again Tuesday when they voted against a marijuana legalization bill that polls show two-thirds of Louisiana residents support. Those two votes aren’t unrelated. They both help protect the sheriffs’ bank accounts.

Rep. Richard Nelson, the 34-year-old Mandeville Republican who proposed legalizing recreational marijuana, argued that legalization would cut off a funding source for organized crime. But leaders of organized crime weren’t leaning on lawmakers to oppose legalization. The sheriffs and district attorneys were, though.

Nelson said several lawmakers told him they wouldn’t vote for his proposal because their local sheriffs and district attorneys wanted them to vote against it.  

In an April 27 hearing of the Louisiana House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice, Mike Ranatza, the executive director of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, suggested that legalization could lead to an increase in youth suicide, and Loren Lampert, the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said it could lead to more traffic fatalities.

Neither man acknowledged that marijuana prohibition benefits sheriffs and D.A.’s. Neither mentioned that the illegality of marijuana not only gives law enforcement officers the right to book a person with possession but that it also gives law enforcement officers justification to search for evidence of other crimes. Neither mentioned that, in a state with a habitual offenders law, district attorneys have automatic leverage over anybody with a prior conviction and that legalizing marijuana would leave them with less leverage.

But none of us should be so naive as to believe that sheriffs and prosecutors aren’t thinking about the ease of conducting searches, the ease of pushing suspects into plea deals and the money that comes with incarcerating people when they make their public safety arguments.

Americans for Prosperity, an organization founded by the conservative Koch brothers, tried to make it easier for the state’s conservatives to support marijuana legalization. As The Advocate reported, the organization called and sent email messages to state lawmakers and even paid for polling so state lawmakers could see for themselves how popular legalization is even in the more conservative areas of this conservative state.

If you’re surprised that a Koch-funded group supports legalization, you shouldn’t be. The Charles Koch Institute held a convention in New Orleans in 2015 where speaker after speaker complained about overcriminalization in the United States. They complained that if law enforcement officials — especially federal ones — want to find a reason to put a person in jail, they can generally find one. One of those speakers cited the work of attorney Harvey Silverglate who has argued that the average American unwittingly commits three felonies a day.

In a recent interview with NPR, Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler said he routinely has his students ride along with a police officer who has them play a game called “Pick That Car.”  It’s simple. The officer tells the student to pick out a car they want him to pull over. “He’s a good cop,” Butler said. “He waits until he finds a legal reason, but he says that he can follow any car for four or five minutes and he’ll find a reason.”

If police pull over such a car in a place where marijuana is legal and they see or smell evidence of marijuna, then that decreases the likelihood that they’ll be able to search the vehicle. But if marijuana isn’t legal and they see or smell evidence, that’s a reason in and of itself to search for evidence of other crimes that could get a person into deeper trouble.

Both Ranatza and Lampert argued last month that legalizing marijuana would lead to more organized crime, and it was such a bizarre argument that Rep. Joe Marino, an independent from Gretna, told them that it made no sense. Marino is a defense attorney. So perhaps he’s biased, but it really doesn’t make any sense to believe that making marijuana legal would increase crime. Nor should we believe that the sheriffs want less crime.  Because when the state’s prison population recently dropped, the sheriffs acted as if they’d been victimized.  

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later NOLA.com) as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.

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