Louisiana Legislature votes to decriminalize possession of modest amounts of marijuana

Governor John Bel Edwards has not said whether he will sign the legislation

By: - June 7, 2021 11:56 am
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The Louisiana Legislature voted to decriminalize the possession of modest amounts of marijuana across the state, removing the possibility of facing jail or prison time for people caught with 14 grams or fewer of the drug.

Gov. John Bel Edwards hasn’t said whether he will sign the legislation yet. If he vetoes the bill, it would likely die. Supporters don’t have enough votes in the Legislature to override his veto.

The governor, the son and brother of sheriffs, has traditionally been opposed to the legalization of marijuana, but hasn’t been clear over whether he disagrees with decriminalization. 

The House of Representatives voted 68-25 and the Senate voted 20-17 for the proposal, representing a sea change in the conservative Legislature’s approach to marijuana policy. 

Rep. Cedric Glover, a Black Democrat from Shreveport, sponsored House Bill 652. Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, who once worked for the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, voted for the proposal. Republican Senate President Page Cortez voted against it. 

If approved, the bill would impose a fine of up to $100 on a person caught with 14 grams or fewer of marijuana but eliminate the possibility of an arrest or incarceration — even for repeat offenses. Fourteen grams, Glover said, is the equivalent of 14 to 25 marijuana joints. 

The current penalties are significantly more severe. A person caught with 14 grams of marijuana can face a $300 fine and imprisonment for 15 days for the first offense. Penalties escalate significantly for repeat offenders — up to a maximum eight years of prison time for people arrested four times.

The legislation faced no significant opposition from law enforcement groups, such as the powerful Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association or Louisiana District Attorneys Association. Proponents of the bill are hoping it leads to fewer drug arrests and smaller jail and prison populations across the state.

“We don’t need to be filling up our jails with misdemeanor offenses of marijuana,” said Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, a few weeks ago. 

Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, opposed the legislation. White, a former law enforcement officer, tried to discourage his fellow senators from supporting the bill, suggesting that they would be taking a step toward marijuana legalization if they voted for it. Even with that warning, most senators supported for the legislation. This includes Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, who is the brother of Jefferson Parish District Attorney Patrick Connick. 

New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport have already voted to decriminalize marijuana within their borders, but this would expand the decriminalization policy to the bulk of Louisiana, where jail time is still on the table for people caught with small amounts of the drug.

Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., have decriminalized marijuana possession, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Legislature also voted earlier in the session to expand the types of medical marijuana available to include raw and crude medical marijuana that can be smoked. The governor also hasn’t signed that legislation yet.

Currently, medical marijuana is only available in a dissolvable or liquid form — which drives up the price of it.  House Bill 391, sponsored by Speaker Pro. Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma,  allows for the distribution of raw, smokable medical marijuana but also places restrictions on it that don’t apply to the liquid form.

Only people 21 years-old and over can receive it. A pharmacy can also only give an individual two and a half ounces of it every two weeks. The raw, smokable medical marijuana also doesn’t have to meet “medical grade” standards like other forms of medical marijuana sold in the state.

The Louisiana Legislature rejected a measure this spring to legalize marijuana — taxing and regulating the sale of the drug. That legislation, sponsored by Republican Rep. Richard Nelson, faced significant opposition. The sheriffs’ association, district attorneys group and Louisiana Republican Party formally came out against that proposal. 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

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