Special Louisiana Legalization Report

Legalize Louisiana supporters at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge on Mar. 10. (Photo by Patrick Hall)

Who knew that for over 20 years Louisiana has had a law on the books that allows doctors to prescribe medical marijuana? If you have glaucoma, suffer from spastic quadriplegia or are undergoing chemotherapy, you should be able to get your hands on some legal medipot. But alas that's not the case. The legislature never passed the needed rules to regulate the dispensing of the drug, effectively making the law unenforceable all these years.

Fast forward to today and things are starting to look up for medical marijuana patients in the Bayou State due to local lawmakers introducing 10 marijuana-related bills during the 2014 session that began Mar. 10, including two bipartisan efforts to drastically reduce penalties as well as completing a process initiated in the early '90s to legalize cannabis for medicinal use in certain cases.

I honestly thought Louisiana would be one of the last states to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes, but on Jan. 22 Gov. Bobby Jindal said he'd be open to the idea of medical marijuana use becoming legal in Louisiana, as long as patients were under the close supervision of a doctor and the drug's distribution was tightly controlled.

It seems the state is starting to finally catch up with its most populated city. In 2010, the New Orleans City Council changed simple possession offenses from criminal to municipal charges. However, the max penalty remains a $500 fine and/or six months in jail. Word out of Baton Rouge is that the City Council there will also be taking up the issue of giving tickets rather than making arrests for marijuana possession.

According to a presentation made by the Louisiana Sentencing Commission last month, the state spent $19 million in 2012 on the incarceration and supervision of those in prison on simple marijuana possession charges; Louisiana's for-profit prison system pays sheriffs $24.39 a day for each inmate behind their bars.

The Department of Corrections said in June 2013 that 1,372 Louisianans were serving time for simple marijuana possession with an average sentence of over eight years; 400 of these were first and second time offenders serving an average sentence of 1.5 years, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office. The most breathtaking stat is that more than 78% of these inmates were black, in a state where African-Americans make up less than one-third of total population.

Louisiana has some of the harshest drug penalties in the Union. Heck, back in 1960, up-and-coming country singer Freddy Fender was arrested in Baton Rouge on a simple possession charge. He spent the next three years at Angola State Penitentiary.

Below are some of the proposed bills that have ben filed:

• House Bill 720, sponsored by Rep. Dalton Honore (D-Baton Rouge): Authorizes the use of medical marijuana in Louisiana.
• House Bill 130, sponsored by Rep. Honore: Removes pot and synthetic marijuana offenses from the habitual offender law.
• House Bill 839, sponsored by Rep. Honore: Shifts marijuana from Schedule I, where it's currently classified alongside heroin, to Schedule II, alongside opium, cocaine and methamphetamine.
• House Bill 906, sponsored by Rep. Ebony Woodruff (D-Harvey): Lessens penalties for possession of 28 grams or less of marijuana to a fine only and possibly counseling for repeat offenders.
• Senate Bill 323, sponsored by Sen. J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans): Mirrors the Mississippi decrim legislation in reducing penalties for a low-level marijuana offense to a $100 fine.
• Senate Bill 541, sponsored by Sen. Fred H. Mills, Jr. (R-New Iberia): Provides for the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

The major monkeywrench in the wheels for these lawmakers will be State Sen. Bob Kostelka (R-Monroe), who has made headlines with his virulent opposition to any reductions in marijuana penalties. Calling the legislation “nothing more than a ruse, a step toward legalization,” Kostelka vows to “fight it every step of the way.”

Before the current session ends Louisianians will have a chance to express their feelings about this topic on the House and Senate floor. No date has been set yet, but it's expected to draw over 200 speakers to advocate for or against marijuana.

For more info, go to Legalize Louisiana.

Patrick Hall

Patrick Hall

Hosts the afternoon show on Z-107.5 in Ruston, LA and 'The Patrick and Mountain Man Show' on Monday afternoons.