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Weed the people

A new organization, Louisianans for Responsible Reform, wants the state to ease up on laws regarding marijuana use

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One important assumption marks the strategy of Louisianans for Responsible Reform (LRR), a new bipartisan organization that advocates for lessening jail time for marijuana users: Most lawmakers don't find themselves in the presence of many joints, spliffs, bongs or brownies.

  "We like to think that most of them are not using illegal drugs," says James Hartman, a Republican and owner of James Hartman and Associates, a consulting firm based in Metairie. He founded LRR with Brian Welsh, a Democrat and longtime political operative in Louisiana known for trying to convince the porn star Stormy Daniels to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate. "So there might simply be an information gap among some lawmakers and among people in general."

  Bridging that gap is one of the team's first goals in its ultimate mission: eliminating sentencing for marijuana users.

  LRR is a 501c4 nonprofit backed financially by the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City-based nonprofit that aims to end the war on drugs and support local groups with the same mission. It has branches in four other states, and has partnered with groups like LRR across the country. LRR's overall goal is obtaining state legislation that provides alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent people who occasionally smoke pot.

  "I think probably, truly, everyone knows someone who at least recreationally uses marijuana," Hartman says. "Most of the people who are aware that they know someone who uses recreational marijuana wouldn't think that person belongs in jail. Most marijuana users are not ... threats to the general welfare of public safety, at least not to the extent that they belong incarcerated for up to 20 years."

  With the majority of Louisiana voters supporting the elimination of jail time for individuals charged with marijuana possession (a statewide poll last summer by the left-leaning organization Public Policy Polling found 59 percent of Louisianans were in favor of reducing jail time for pot users), why should that task be so hard?

  According to Welsh and Hartman, it's politics — politics, as well as a stigma the issue has carried since the 1960s.

  "You'll sit in committees, and here they are talking about prison sentences, and people going to jail for a long time, but they can't help but giggle, because there's this stigma," Welsh says. "If it weren't for that, this would be a 100 percent Republican issue and would have been for a long time. We had to get a little past the '60s for people to realize that this isn't a political thing. This is something that we're doing that's costing us a lot of money and that's hurting us at the same time."

Hartman and Welsh met in 2007 when they worked for opposing candidates in that year's gubernatorial race, when John Georges, who ran as an independent, squared off against Republican Bobby Jindal. The two political gurus both grew up in Columbia, S.C. and went to high school about 15 miles away from each other, but didn't meet until they'd made their respective ways down to Louisiana. They found common ground on the need for responsible marijuana legislation reform and founded LRR to get people from both sides of the aisle talking about it.

  "We are on opposite ends of the political spectrum," Hartman says, "but this reasonable sentencing effort is something that Republicans and liberals can agree on."

  "What I found over the past year working on this, here in the state, was that there are groups all over of different political stripes who all see the need for some responsible reform," Welsh adds. "We're wasting too much money, we're destroying families, we're destroying communities and we're clogging up the political justice system."

  On average, 400 Louisianans are incarcerated each year on first and second marijuana possession charges. The average jail stay for an individual charged with possession of marijuana is 18 months, and a first-time offender can be jailed for up to six months. A second offense in Louisiana can earn an offender up to five years in prison with a fine of up to $2,500, and a third-time offender can earn up to 20 years in prison with a $5,000 fine. In 2010, a person was arrested every 37 seconds in the U.S. for possession of marijuana, according to a 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that was reviewed independently by researchers from Stanford University.

  Greg Thompson, a consultant to LRR, was a prosecutor in Orleans Parish before he went into private practice. He was an advisor to the state sentencing committee last year, and has taken an interest in the state's marijuana laws partly because of what he saw as a prosecutor.

  "Going to try a case like this, you absolutely hate it," he says. "Most of the folks on the jury pool would give you the look like, are you kidding me? This is why we're coming today, for a marijuana second or a marijuana third, when five people just got murdered last night? ... Meanwhile, next week, you have a murder say, or a rape, or an armed robbery set for trial, especially in this city, where victims and witnesses are very reluctant to come forward, you have to be very, very delicate in how you prepare folks like that for trial. And that time that you're spending during that marijuana (trial) is time that's not being devoted to these very serious cases."

  Ten years ago, Mississippi eliminated sentencing for first-time offenders, yet Louisiana continues the practice. "We're hardly trying to say anything extremely radical, here," Welsh says.

  Welsh and Hartman can recite a laundry list of reasons why those numbers should change. First, Hartman says, jailing that many people for nonthreatening crimes costs taxpayers a fortune. The ACLU estimates states spend an average of $3.6 billion every year just to enforce marijuana laws. Jail sentences reduce efficiency in the criminal justice system, straining court dockets with simple marijuana charges. It's disruptive to families, and it labels people as felons.

  The enforcement of current pot laws also unfairly targets blacks. "Basically, whites' and blacks' use of marijuana is essentially the same," Welsh explains, citing the ACLU study. "In terms of incarceration for possession, you're looking at up to four times as many African-Americans are incarcerated as whites.

  "The ripple effect that then has throughout these communities and these families is just devastating," he adds. "You end up with families who have lost the provider, who've lost the breadwinner, a father. You're basically just keeping the cycle going of poverty and jail. The misapplication of this law is a huge reason it needs to be reformed."

  Hartman is quick to add, though, that smoking pot is illegal, and the LRR is not advocating for legalization. "Yes, they've broken the law," he says. "Yes, there are penalties for breaking the law; that's just how things work. But I think we can all agree with the premise that the punishment should fit the crime."

  What punishment would fit the crime, Hartman and Welsh say, is for the Louisiana legislature to decide. "Our belief is that jail time doesn't do anybody any good," Welsh says. "After that, let the legislature debate and let them do what they feel is best."

  Hartman mentions several creative sentencing options that have been enacted in other states: community service, drug courts with rehabilitative services and other penalties that don't necessarily carry a criminal record. He adds that one frequent holdup to reform is what he calls the "slippery slope" argument.

  "People argue that reducing sentencing for marijuana leads to reducing sentencing for heroin and for people hauling around truckloads of cocaine and all kinds of horrible things, dogs and cats living together, you know, fire and brimstone stuff because the world is going to end," Hartman says. "But in actuality, I think what we've already seen is the slippery slope in the other direction. You know, the extremely strict sentencing on low-level, nonthreatening drug users."

  Thompson says second and third marijuana offenses often are used as a way to ferret out bad guys, but that approach, he argues, is inefficient.

  "If someone's charged with a marijuana second or third, then that's all we can get them with and maybe they've skated on a murder or an armed robbery here and there," he says. "But the more I think about it, really that represents a failure, and not a failure with the marijuana statutes, but a failure at the previous level. Either those cases were not investigated properly, they weren't prosecuted with the zeal they needed to be prosecuted with, or that person was given a lenient sentence.

  "Maybe, again, if those resources were used to fix what failed, then you wouldn't have to worry about a marijuana second or third. So if you gave more money to police, gave them a new crime lab here in Orleans Parish that could actually handle a lot more than it does, you wouldn't have to worry about the marijuana charge."

  Reform might be on its way. In January, state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, pre-filed House Bill 14, which would decrease penalties for pot users. Last week, state Sens. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans and Robert Adley, R-Benton filed a similar bill in the Senate. (For a longer look at marijuana-related laws being introduced into the state legislature this session, see Jeremy Alford's cover story, "The Grass Menagerie," p. 17.)

  Reform comes when lawmakers and the public are on the same page. "It's about bringing the political will together with the public opinion," Welsh says.

  Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana last year, and there still are kinks to work out in those states, from bypassing federal laws that make possession of pot a felony to orchestrating business licenses for those who want to grow it. But the sentiment that led lawmakers to pass legislation in those states isn't all that different from LRR's approach: Getting rid of jail is step one. We can talk about the details later.

  "Let the debate begin," Welsh says.

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