In the most open debate on Louisiana’s marijuana laws to date, citizens came en masse to Baton Rouge on Tuesday (Jan. 21) to tell state lawmakers why they believe the drug should be legalized for medical or recreational use. But in a state that still allows repeat offenders to be incarcerated for life for simply possessing the drug, there are few legislators who support outright legalization.
Tuesday’s meeting of the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice was meant to be informational only, and was convened at the request of state Rep. Dalton Honore, D-Baton Rouge, to discuss the feasibility of legalizing marijuana for medical use.
No vote was taken and no bills were up for debate. But over the course of nearly four hours, officials, law enforcement and the public passionately portrayed their sides of the debate on legalizing the drug. By the end of the hearing, state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, said the possibility that Louisiana lawmakers would rally behind legalization was slim.
“I’m not sure if the Legislature is ready for any kind of legalization,” said Badon, who is again sponsoring a bill to lessen the penalties for those convicted on repeated charges of simple marijuana possession.
Chairman Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, agreed. However, he said he would still be amenable to discussing medical marijuana, and thinks age makes a huge difference when it comes to responsible marijuana use.
Of the 1,372 Louisianans currently incarcerated on marijuana possession charges, over 78 percent are black. The average sentence is 8.4 years.
“For a 50-year-old who smokes marijuana in his backyard, I could care less,” said Lopinto, adding the caveat that there is “no right age” for responsible marijuana use.
Lopinto added if lawmakers want to legalize medical marijuana use in Louisiana, legislation would need to be passed to tweak the current statute, which already allows doctors to issue prescriptions for marijuana for certain ailments. The Louisiana Board of Pharmacies would need guidance on dispensaries, he noted.
Much of the public debate Tuesday focused on medical marijuana. Honore said it was time state lawmakers talked openly about the drug and its possible beneficial uses for those with serious illnesses.
“I’m here today not advocating the legalization of marijuana,” he said. “I’ve requested a study and the committee has done an excellent job in gaining information for me. This state is behind on medical marijuana use. If I had my choice today, I’d say let’s put it to the people of the state of Louisiana to vote on. And I would assure you it would pass.”
Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals Assistant Secretary Rochelle Head-Dunham enumerated the potential health pitfalls of using marijuana, citing studies she said show an increased risk for schizophrenia in adolescents and heart attacks in adults.
Tulane assistant professor of clinical medicine MarkAlain Déry later criticized her remarks, noting that as the head of an HIV/AIDS clinic, he wishes he could prescribe marijuana for his patients suffering from chronic pain and nausea.
Two HIV-positive members of the public later said they have used the drug to ease the side effects of their illness, while retired firefighter and New Orleans resident Ron Hotstream said he has been using the drug since permanently injuring his back on the job.
Atasha King said she is planning a move to Colorado with her daughter, Armani, who suffers from chronic seizures. She said only there will her daughter have open access to specially-grown marijuana with low levels of the active ingredient THC and high levels of CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid shown in some studies to reduce the frequency of epileptic attacks.
But the political calculus of state lawmakers could hinge on testimony from law enforcement and the powerful state District Attorneys Association. While the latter will likely support Badon’s reduced sentences legislation, the group’s representative said Tuesday it was staunchly against going any further.
“Please think very carefully before you amend the current provisions,” said Caddo Parish District Attorney Charles R. Scott. “You have to conclude that marijuana, that THC, has some very bad characteristics. We do not need in Louisiana our workforce to be impaired any further.”
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the ACLU, said there are other options short of legalization that could bring Louisiana’s marijuana laws more in line with its regional peers. But, Badon’s penalty reduction bill and others like it are only the first step, she said.
She urged lawmakers and law enforcement to look at the current rates of incarceration broken down by race for simple marijuana possession. According to numbers given by Esman at the hearing — and confirmed by state Department of Corrections officials — as of June 2013, 1,372 Louisianians were serving sentences for simple marijuana possession. The average sentence is 8.4 years, with 10 people serving life sentences.
More than 78 percent of these offenders are black, while only 32.4 percent of the state population is black, according to 2012 U.S. Census numbers. This should cause pause, Esman said, because national studies have shown marijuana use is roughly equal among white and black people.
“We are arresting our friends and neighbors in racially disproportionate numbers for simple possession of marijuana,” she said.
A fiscal note for Badon’s 2013 legislation noted the state could save $1.6 million in the first year after the passage of such legislation. Savings would ramp up after that, with a total of $8.1 million in reduced incarceration costs predicted in subsequent years.
Lawmakers will convene the 2014 legislative session on March 10. While Badon’s bill is currently the only one dealing with the subject of marijuana, other bills addressing marijuana penalties and medical use are expected to be filed.
You must be logged in to post a comment.