Louisiana has some of the most punitive anti-marijuana laws in the United States. Even simple possession carries serious jail time. But that could soon change in the wake of a vote to lighten criminal penalties on the drug.

Louisiana_PotThe state Senate voted 27-12 May 25 to change the way cannabis offenders are punished. The bill stops short of real decriminalization, but its success is a strong sign that prohibition is on its last legs even in the Deep South.

Possession of small amounts of cannabis, less than 14 grams (roughly half an ounce) would be a misdemeanor punishable by no more than 15 days in jail and $300 in fines on a first offense. A second offense, also a misdemeanor, would carry a top penalty of six months in jail and $1,000 in fines. A third offense, a felony, would come with up to two years in prison and $2,500. And a fourth or subsequent conviction would be punishable by up to eight years in prison and $5,000.

Currently, the maximum penalty for any possession crime involving up to 60 pounds is six months in jail and $500 on a first offense. On a second offense, the penalty increases to five years in prison and $2,500. On a subsequent conviction, the top punishment is 20 years in prison and $5,000.

Penalties would be reduced

Those penalties would remain the same for possession of between 14 grams and 2.5 pounds on a first offense. Stiffer penalties would apply to greater amounts, but offenders would face reduced sentences for subsequent convictions. And those caught with small amounts of cannabis would be eligible to have their records expunged after two years without another offense.

The Senate bill, authored by Sen. J.P. Morrell, a Democrat, won bipartisan support. It now heads to the state House of Representatives, where its prospects are unclear. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, hasn’t said whether he would sign the bill as is, though he has made a handful of comments supportive of cannabis reform in recent months.

Penalties would remain harsh under Morrell’s plan, even compared to other conservative states. But the key provision would lower the maximum penalty for simple possession from 20 years in prison to eight. Southern states have repeatedly come under scrutiny for sentencing marijuana offenders to unreasonably long prison terms.

JailReform has historically been a long-shot in Louisiana, and the Senate vote is at best a baby step. But it’s a step, one made only because Morrell convinced law enforcement groups not to fight his proposal. They were successful in defeating similar legislation last year.

Morrell called Louisiana’s marijuana statutes “draconian” but defended police against “a tremendous perception problem in Louisiana regarding the ‘Cool Hand Luke’ (approach) to incarceration.” The new bill, he said, addresses problems with the state’s anti-drug laws, both “real and perceived.”

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