James Gill: Pot illegal, but still popular in La.

Many marijuana users in Louisiana may not much care if it is legalized or not.

There is no shortage, for instance, of solid citizens, no longer in the first flush of youth, who enjoy a toke, and have no fear of arrest whatsoever. Securing an ample supply, moreover, is clearly a breeze.

After a hearing on the pros and cons of weed last week, however, legislators allowed there was no chance Louisiana would adopt the kind of pothead’s charter recently enacted in Colorado and Washington state. A politician in favor of smoking marijuana just for the fun of it wouldn’t dare say so if he wanted to be re-elected, especially in the Bible Belt.

There is room, however, for a more enlightened approach on two fronts. Current policy is mindlessly cruel both to the chronically sick, who are denied the pain relief that marijuana can bring, and to the poor wretches condemned to many years in prison for mere possession.

In theory, state law has since 1991 allowed the “therapeutic use of marijuana,” albeit only for “glaucoma, symptoms resulting from the administration of chemotherapy cancer treatment and spastic quadriplegia.” But even if you are so afflicted, and can find a doctor “registered to prescribe Schedule I substances with the Drug Enforcement Administration,” you can’t just waltz down to Walgreens with a prescription. No rules for dispensing marijuana were ever put in place.

That the law urgently needs revision was obvious from testimony at the legislative hearing. A doctor who heads an HIV/AIDS clinic in New Orleans averred that marijuana would help ease his patients’ pain and nausea. The victims of various diseases pleaded for legal access to marijuana, which they claimed is less dangerous and has fewer side effects than their medications.

Opinions vary on whether marijuana is a relatively benign drug, but any risk it entails may seem worth taking if the alternative is unremitting and severe pain. There is no moral justification for a marijuana ban without an effective medical exemption.

Most of the country, meanwhile, has outgrown the hysteria that produced draconian prison sentences for productive and otherwise law-abiding citizens caught with dope. Regardless of any moral questions, it got too expensive, and nowhere in the world locks its people up at the same rate as Louisiana.

We are evidently determined to continue incarcerating beyond our means. But we could certainly save a lot of money on marijuana offenders. As of last year we had 1,372 citizens in prison for simple possession. The average sentence was 8.4 years, and 10 of the inmates, thanks to multiple-billing prosecutors, were doing life. There is no attempt to make the punishment fit the crime here. Perhaps there would be if the cops were busting users higher on the social scale.

Drug enforcement is notoriously skewed against black people, and so it is with Louisiana’s marijuana law. Of those doing time for possession, 78 percent are black, although less than one third of the state population is. There may be no chance of legalizing recreational pot, but we can at least aim to apply the law fairly.

Perhaps Colorado and Washington state will one day reveal what would happen if marijuana were legal here. Meanwhile, you pay your money and you take your choice. According to the state Health Department marijuana can bring on schizophrenia in adolescents and heart attacks in older users.

President Barack Obama, however, assures us that it is less dangerous than alcohol “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer,” and no more dangerous than cigarettes. Others have argued cigarettes are worse.

But perhaps it makes no never mind how the various vices stack up. Legalizing marijuana might not make much difference here, since it appears that most everyone who wants to smoke it already does. As New Orleans Mayor Martin Behrman said of prostitution back in the days of Storyville, “You can make it illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.”

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.