Legislators urged to consider lesser penalties
The focus of a legislative hearing on legalizing marijuana Tuesday turned into a talk of reducing possession penalties, then focused on fixing a decades-old law that would allow cannabis to be used to help patients with cancer, HIV-AIDS, epilepsy and other illnesses.
Tulane University Medical School assistant professor Dr. MarkAlain Dè ry said marijuana is “a critical tool in the toolbox” of physicians, which helps people like those he sees at HIV-AIDS clinics.
He and others pressed legislators to update the “medical marijuana” law. Passed in 1991, the law authorized physicians to prescribe marijuana to treat certain medical conditions. But no provisions or rules were put in place to outline how the marijuana would be distributed.
Kelly Fournier, of Metairie, asked for relief for her 15-year-old daughter Sloane, who suffers from multiple daily seizures even on a special diet and three medications that she fears are doing damage.
“We believe that medical cannabis could be an option for Sloane,” Fournier said.
“If Louisiana does not catch up with Colorado, California, New Jersey, or the many other states changing their medical marijuana laws, you will start to see your families torn apart and then leave altogether. I know people who are in the process of moving to Colorado. I believe that Louisiana citizens, especially their children, should have access to the same healing, natural remedies, as children in other states.”
Patrick Quinones, of Baton Rouge; Ron Hotstream, of New Orleans; and others with medical conditions said they should have legal access to marijuana, which is less dangerous and has fewer side effects than the prescription drugs they are on.
Baton Rouge attorney Jeff Sanford appealed to legislators sensibilities.
“When you withhold the means for a person to relieve their suffering, aren’t you indeed causing that suffering?” Sanford said.
The hearing by the Louisiana House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee was prompted by a study resolution sponsored by state Rep. Dalton Honoré , D-Baton Rouge. He wanted the committee to look into the feasibility and effectiveness of legalizing marijuana possession and use.
“If I had my choice today, I’d say put it to the people of Louisiana to vote on. It would pass,” said Honoré , a former law enforcement officer told the committee.
Legalization, decriminalization or penalty reduction of marijuana have been adopted in 26 states and the District of Columbia since 1996. Marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. Colorado and Washington have approved recreational use. Medical marijuana is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia.
Law enforcement, prosecutors and an addictive disorder specialist warned about the bad effects of marijuana use, one calling it the precursor to cocaine and other more addictive drugs as they testified against legalization.
“It’s a gateway for some, a raceway for others,” said Charles Scott, of Shreveport, president of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.
But a parade of witnesses downplayed the danger, saying it’s less problematic than alcohol or cigarettes, which are legal. In addition, they said marijuana has proven medical benefits. But testimony during the four-hour hearing only briefly touched on legalization.
Some advocated lessening penalties for simple possession of marijuana, saying that some have been jailed for up to 20 years for multiple offenses.
The legislative session starts March 10 and legislation has already been filed that would reduce criminal penalties for second and subsequent convictions of possession of marijuana and ban use of the Habitual Offender Law when all the underlying criminal convictions are for possession of marijuana.
District Attorney Scott said prosecutors would work with state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, to see if some middle ground could be found on the marijuana laws.
“Louisiana does have extremely harsh penalties for simple possession,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director for the Louisiana ACLU. She said other neighboring states, such as Mississippi, have laws that are much less severe.
Esman said it would be worthwhile to reduce penalties for “recreational use.”
“The laws are not in concert with public opinion,” Esman said.
She also said the laws are being used disproportionately against African-Americans, adding that 78.9 percent “of people incarcerated for marijuana offenses are African-American.
“There’s some prosecutorial discrimination going on.”