Louisiana Legislators Tackle Marijuana Reform

Posted on by Townsend Myers

Criminal Defense Attorney, New Orleans, State Seal Of Louisiana Image - NOLA Criminal LawA number of marijuana-related bills have been introduced before the Louisiana State Legislature, which began the 2014 session today in Baton Rouge. Among the marijuana-related bills this legislative session are the following:

S.B. 323 (Sen. Morrell and Adley) which reduces criminal penalties for marijuana possession and prohibits application of enhanced sentencing laws to second and subsequent offense marijuana possession. This law would reduce the penalty for simple possession of marijuana to a fine of $100 or six months in jail, and strike entirely the second and subsequent offense provisions of the law that made possession of marijuana a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison for multiple offenses.

The less progressive H.B. 14 (Rep. Badon) is still a step in the right direction. It reduces the maximum penalties for subsequent marijuana possession convictions from 5 to 2 years (for a second offense), and from 20 to 5 years (for a third offense).

An interesting compromise bill is H.B 906 (Rep. Woodruff). This bill proposes a dramatic shift in the penalties for possession of first and subsequent offenses of possession of less than 28 grams (1 ounce) of marijuana. First offense possession would be punishable by a $50-$100 fine, second offenses by a $100-$150 fine, and third or subsequent offenses by a $150-$200 fine or probation. The maximum penalties, however, would remain the same as the current law for ALL marijuana offense levels – 6 months (first offense), 5 years (second offense) and 20 years (third offense) – for any amounts over 28 grams. The bill, however, would prohibit an offender from being subject to the enhanced sentencing provisions of the Louisiana habitual offender law if all of his felony convictions were for possession of marijuana.

On the subject of the habitual offender law, H.B. 130 removes any previous felony convictions involving marijuana from being counted as “prior offenses” under the habitual offender law. Curiously, it does not prevent the habitual offender law from applying to a felony marijuana conviction where the offender has prior felony convictions for offenses other than marijuana, leaving open the door for life sentences on marijuana convictions like the one from 2011 in St. Tammany Parish that I wrote about.

In anticipation of the debate on these bills, the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (LACDL) voted today, in a telephone conference, to adopt an official policy statement related to the possession and use of marijuana.

The text of the policy statement is as follows:

We believe that marijuana prohibition financially burdens taxpayers, encroaches upon civil liberties, engenders disrespect for the law, and disproportionately impacts students, lower income classes, African Americans, and other ethnic minorities who bear the brunt of cannabis arrests and prosecutions. The responsible consumption of marijuana by adults in private should not be defined as criminal behavior deserving of arrest, potential jail time, a criminal record, and the lifelong stigma that accompanies it. Criminalizing marijuana is a disproportionate response to what, at worst, is a health issue, not a criminal justice issue.

As a criminal defense attorney, a member of the LACDL, and an advocate for reform of marijuana laws, I wholeheartedly endorse this policy. I also find encouragement in a number of bills before the legislature this session, and hope that the above policy is considered and supported by our state representatives as they debate these bills.

It is worth noting that none of the bills discussed above change the present laws related to synthetic marijuana. First offense still remains a misdemeanor, but all subsequent offenses are felonies punishable by the 5 and 20 year max sentences for second and third offenses, respectively. I believe this is appropriate. I have written in the past that I believe the only way discourage the use of the far more dangerous synthetic types of marijuana is to relax the criminalization of marijuana itself. By declaring that marijuana is less criminal than its synthetic counterpart, I believe the legislature will go a long way toward achieving this objective.

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