Louisiana Governor signs bill to eliminate jail, prison time for modest marijuana possession

John Bel Edwards bristles at describing this action as ‘decriminalizing’ marijuana

By: - June 15, 2021 4:18 pm
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Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a new law that eliminates jail and prison time for the possession of modest amounts of marijuana — something typically defined as “decriminalizing” the drug. It takes effect Aug. 1.

“This is not a decision I took lightly,” Edwards said in a written statement Tuesday. “In addition to carefully reviewing the bill, I also believe deeply that the state of Louisiana should no longer incarcerate people for minor legal infractions, especially those that are legal in many states, that can ruin lives and destroy families, as well as cost taxpayers greatly.”

Edwards said he saw the legislation as an extension of his efforts to reduce the state’s prison population. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the country.

“Taking this action is another step toward Louisiana’s criminal justice reform efforts,” he said in a written statement. 

But the governor — who is the son and brother of sheriffs — also insisted in his statement the new law does not “decriminalize” modest marijuana possession, though it meets the definition of decriminalization broadly used in public policy circles. 

Decriminalization typically means to remove the threat of incarceration for an offense, and to replace it with a fine. Louisiana’s new law would impose a fine of up to $100 on a person caught with 14 grams or fewer of marijuana in lieu of incarceration — even for repeat offenses. 

The current penalties for marijuana possession 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 Louisiana Legislature approved the decriminalization law with bipartisan support, representing a sea change in lawmakers’ approach to marijuana issues. Law enforcement groups — including the Louisiana Sheriffs Association and Louisiana District Attorneys Association — didn’t oppose the proposal publicly. 

Rep. Cedric Glover, a Black Democrat from Shreveport, sponsored the new law. 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. 

New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport have already voted to decriminalize marijuana, but the bill Edwards signed expands the decriminalization policy to all of Louisiana. Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., have decriminalized marijuana possession already, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Legislature also voted to expand the types of medical marijuana available to include raw and crude medical marijuana that can be smoked. The governor hasn’t signed that legislation yet, though he has typically supported medical marijuana bills.

Currently, medical marijuana is only available in a dissolvable or liquid form — which drives up its price.  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.

If the bill is approved, only people 21 and over will be able to receive smokable medical marijuana. A pharmacy will also only be able to give an individual two and a half ounces every two weeks. 

The raw, smokable medical marijuana 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 of Mandeville, faced significant opposition. The sheriffs’ association, district attorneys group and Louisiana Republican Party formally came out against that bill.

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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.