James Gill: Penalties seem like reefer madness

When the sheriffs and district attorneys team up in Baton Rouge, they are pretty much guaranteed to have their way.

So Louisiana remains out of step, spending millions putting harmless potheads in prison long after the rest of the South has recognized that marijuana possession poses no serious threat to civic order, and made it a relatively minor offense. A Senate committee shot down the latest attempt Tuesday to inject some humanity and common sense into our laws.

That we need to do so is apparent from the case of Bernard Noble, as the Lens recently reported. Noble was sentenced a couple of years ago to five years after police found he was carrying enough dope for a couple of joints. That sentence would surely be savage enough for most tastes, but Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro is a tough hombre. Cannizzaro pushed for more time on grounds that Noble is a multiple offender. Indeed, he is, but all but one of his busts have been for simple possession, and the 13 years that Noble is serving cannot square with any decent concept of justice.

Cannizzaro spokesman Christopher Bowman suggested Noble got what he deserved because he “has a flagrant disregard for the law.” Well, some laws merit more respect than others. And if the idea behind harsh sentences is deterrence, it clearly isn’t working.

As more enlightened states have discovered, a more effective and rational answer to drug addiction is treatment. Some measure of punishment is fair enough, but, in Louisiana, get caught three times and you’re facing 20 years. Plenty of violent offenders do less time than that.

Prosecutors and sheriffs were united in opposition when the committee took up a bill by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, that would have made six months, and a $100 fine, the maximum penalty for possession of marijuana. That was, perhaps, a rather drastic reduction, but the public would no doubt be unperturbed to see the offense downgraded to a misdemeanor.

As committee Chairman Robert Kostelka, R-Monroe, has repeatedly made clear, that will happen over his dead body.

That sheriffs should be against lesser sentences makes obvious sense, given their stake in Louisiana’s flourishing incarceration industry. It makes sense for district attorneys, too, albeit not financially. Since they have such broad discretion in filing charges, the threat of a felony drug prosecution may persuade defendants to plead guilty to other charges, even if the evidence is flimsy. And felony drug convictions can come in mighty handy for piling on the years with multiple billing.

Mike Ranatza, who was Harahan police chief years ago and now is executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, told the committee that our marijuana laws play a big part in the war on drugs. But it should be obvious by now that the war on drugs is over, and drugs won.

Bishop Ronnie Allen also testified against the bill. “By decriminalizing a drug, you are not going to solve that problem,” he said. But long prison sentences haven’t solved that problem, either, and, besides, Morrell’s bill did not decriminalize marijuana possession.

It was, though, a step in that direction, Kostelka warned. Not everyone will be alarmed by that prospect. A society that has survived liquor and tobacco may be able to take weed in its stride. The time probably will come when it is legal in more than a couple of states.

A recent poll in Texas, hardly a hotbed of liberal permissiveness, found a majority in favor of legalization. Penalties for possession already have been significantly reduced to entirely felicitous effect, according to Jerry Madden, former chairman of the Texas House Corrections Committee. “It saves money, saves lives and reverses the trend,” he testified Tuesday.

But it was soon obvious that the bill was doomed, even after Morrell agreed to amend it so that it applied only to possession of an ounce or less.

“What this bill seeks is a more compassionate outlook,” Morrell said. Our sheriffs and district attorneys are made of sterner stuff.

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