James Gill: Big changes is La. pot laws not likely

Nobody in state government is going to get too excited about saving a lousy $19 million a year, although taxpayers might think it worth a try.

It would be easy to accomplish. Legislators would merely need to make marijuana possession a misdemeanor in all cases. State Sens. Robert Adley, R-Benton, and J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, have filed a bill to do just that, but the prospect of such radical reform must alarm most of their colleagues. The state District Attorneys’ Association, a major force in the corridors of the Capitol, will be leaning on them to keep potheads behind bars, so this is not one to put your money on.

If there is to be any relaxation in marijuana laws in this session, it will be relatively modest. Capitol handicappers give a better chance of passage to another bill, filed by state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, that would shorten prison sentences somewhat for repeat offenders.

Louisiana comes down much harder on marijuana users than other Southern states, and public opinion is strongly in favor of a lighter touch. But it will not be easy for legislators to do an about-face and admit that we can quit sending harmless dope smokers to prison for years on end without bringing civilization to its knees.

The cost of locking up citizens who would otherwise be engaged in productive work is incalculable. That $19 million, according to an analysis recently presented to the state sentencing commission, is how much less the state would spend on imprisonment and probation if possession were reduced to a misdemeanor. And what price all those ruined lives?

Louisiana law now makes first-offense possession a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine. Get caught again, you’re a felon and in for it. A second offense can bring five years in prison, and after that you’re looking at 20.

Cross state lines, and the law looks more kindly on tokers. No Southern state is exactly a hotbed of liberalism and permissiveness, but most of them make us look mindlessly severe in this regard. The analysis submitted to the sentencing commission, prepared by attorney Greg Thompson, noted that Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina and Florida all regard possession as a misdemeanor every time. Only Alabama makes every repeat offense a felony. Arkansas does so on the fifth conviction.

Thompson is listed as “legislative adviser” to Louisianans for Responsible Reform, which is lobbying for lighter sentences and just sent out a news release demanding that the District Attorneys’ Association “explain its opposition” to the Adley and Morrell bill, which would impose a maximum sentence of a $100 fine and six months in jail for each offense.

It would surely be too much of a wrench for Louisiana to become as progressive as, say, Mississippi overnight, but half-measures may be the best that the responsible reformers can hope for.

They received some encouragement when the sentencing commission gave its blessing to the Badon bill, much to the horror of its more hidebound members. Prominent among them was Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, who chairs the state Senate committee most likely to consider the bill and vowed to oppose it on grounds that marijuana unleashes criminal tendencies and is a gateway to harder stuff. Kostelka helped kill similar legislation last year.

It seems like a lot of fuss over a measure that reduces penalties to two years on second offense and five years on third. Subsequent offenses could mean up to eight years.

Current penalties would be retained for possession of synthetic cannabinoids, which apparently do the body much more serious damage than nature’s weed.

Possession of marijuana could still mean life in prison under the state’s multiple offender law if three prior convictions were for other crimes.

The state would not be saving any $19 million a year under the Badon bill but would experience what Thompson’s report terms a “modicum of fiscal relief.” It would achieve “a small degree of balance with Southern legislative trends” while “posing little or no danger to the public.”

Although the District Attorneys’ Association won’t be throwing its weight behind Badon’s bill either, its director, Pete Adams, has said the reduced sentences it calls for are “reasonable.”

That isn’t likely to cut much ice with one former DA who went on to be elected a judge and finally wound up in the state Senate. Kostelka’s the name.

Senator amended report: A March 16 column reported that state Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, had taken campaign contributions from political committees in excess of legal limits. The contributions were detailed in her 2012 state campaign finance disclosure. But Dorsey says the form was incorrect and she has amended it.

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