Until last year, anyone caught with any amount of marijuana in Louisiana faced up to six months in jail. A bipartisan group of state legislators, with then-Gov. Bobby Jindal's support, changed that archaic law. Now state law holds that a first offense for holding fewer than 14 grams of pot draws a 15-day jail penalty in Louisiana (though first and second offenders may be eligible for probation). Meanwhile, the penalty for distributing any amount of marijuana is a minimum of five years in jail. More reforms are needed in this area of the law, and the New Orleans City Council — led by District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry — seems ready to establish sensible marijuana guidelines for local citizens and cops.
First, some background: In 2010, Guidry convinced the council to give New Orleans police the option of issuing first-time marijuana offenders a municipal summons rather than hauling them off to jail. Then-Police Chief Ronal Serpas said the change would let cops concentrate on serious crime.
Now Guidry wants to let cops offer warnings and up to $100 fines for all simple marijuana offenses — a move she says will save taxpayers money, free up cops to fight more serious crime, and provide some measure of social justice. According to Guidry's office, African-Americans still account for three-quarters of all misdemeanor marijuana arrests and a whopping 92 percent of felony marijuana arrests. "This is unacceptable and not in line with the demographics of our city or the reported demographics of marijuana users," Guidry said in a statement. We don't advocate recreational marijuana use, but we agree with Guidry that giving cops more discretion in pot cases is a good idea.
In recent years, states and municipalities across America have relaxed their laws governing personal marijuana use — from complete legalization (and taxation) to reclassifying it as a minor municipal offense. Last year, a CBS News poll found 53 percent of Americans favored legalizing marijuana. Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington D.C. all have legalized recreational pot use, with strong voter support. That trend runs contrary to federal law, which still categorizes marijuana as a Schedule I drug (along with heroin, LSD and peyote, all of which can be far more harmful than pot).
Granted, Louisiana is not going to legalize recreational marijuana any time soon. Right now, no state politician wants to appear "soft on drugs." But just as individual states have devised solutions that work for them in the face of more draconian federal laws, New Orleans seems ready to adopt its own common-sense approach to dealing with casual marijuana use.
Police Chief Michael Harrison has not yet taken a position on Guidry's latest proposal, nor has Mayor Mitch Landrieu. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro expressed reservations about "any law that fails to adequately discourage the possession and use of a controlled dangerous substance," but he stopped short of opposing Guidry's idea outright.
Guidry's ordinance could come up for council approval in coming weeks (as of last week, her office didn't have a definite hearing date). We hope council members — and the mayor — give it the serious attention and support it deserves.