Conversations about marijuana reform are turning up in unlikely places.
Even in Louisiana, for example, lawmakers are talking about changes that could allow patients to obtain medical marijuana. Is action likely in the immediate future? Maybe not, but it’s remarkable that legislators in such a deep-red state are seriously considering MMJ.
Actually, Louisiana has a medical cannabis law on the books, and has for many years. But it’s not considered real MMJ: It doesn’t protect patients or doctors from criminal prosecution, and there’s no legal way for patients to get weed. So it doesn’t help needy Louisianans in any meaningful way.
But now lawmakers are talking about changing that. The state House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice met Jan. 21 and discussed how patients can practically get marijuana. According to the Daily Comet of Lafourche Parish, some state legislators want to have a serious conversation about reform.
State Sen. Norby Chalbert, a Democrat, said he’s “not one way or another on this issue” but thinks it’s worth considering whether the punishment fits the crime. Possession of less than 60 pounds in Louisiana is currently punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a $500 fine on a first offense. Penalties increase sharply on subsequent convictions.
Chalbert called simple possession “something of a victimless crime.”
“You look at the money it’s costing the state, municipal and local parish jails or state prisons to incarcerate so many folks for a simple marijuana possession,” he said.
A recent study by the ACLU found blacks are punished for cannabis use at far greater rates than whites, even though both use similar amounts of the drug. The problem is especially bad in Louisiana, where 80 percent of weed offenders are black; African Americans make up 30 percent of the population.
The Louisiana ACLU reports more than 1,300 people are currently incarcerated in the state for simple marijuana possession. The average sentence is 8.4 years, and as of last June, 10 of those people were serving live sentences.
Several new bills have been proposed for the 2014 session. They would reduce penalties for multiple offenses. They would also remove possession convictions from consideration when the Habitual Offender Law is applied. That law increases penalties for offenders with past convictions.
Similar legislation passed the state House of Representatives last year. It was approved by a Senate committee but never made it to a full vote in the state Senate.
The Jan. 21 meeting of the House committee was requested by state Rep. Dalton Honore, also a Democrat. He said he wanted “a study for what procedure we need to use to get it prescribed by a doctor.”
“It’s all over the country,” Honore said. “Massive amounts of people are saying let’s legalize marijuana. It’s filling our prisons up.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, has said he’s open to the idea of MMJ as long as patients can prove a “legitimate medical need” and “very strict supervision” is provided.