Sheriffs not high on pot penalties bill

Debate over lowering the penalties for simple marijuana possession sparked vitriol Thursday between a New Orleans legislator and the state’s sheriffs.

State Rep. Austin Badon angrily halted discussion of House Bill 14 after accusing the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association of blindsiding him with its opposition to the proposal.

Badon, D-New Orleans, said he walked into the House Criminal Justice Committee room with the understanding that the group was neutral on the legislation.

“To be broadsided like I was a few moments ago ticks me off. Everybody has my phone number,” he told members of the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice.

Badon voluntarily deferred HB14, creating the possibility of it resurfacing.

Afterward, he rebuffed Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Michael Renatza’s offer to discuss the dispute.

“He wanted to talk. … I just wanted him to get the hell out of my face,” Badon said later in the day.

Marijuana is under debate this session on a range of issues. Some legislators want to soften the punishment for pot smokers. Others want to allow marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes.

In contrast to another House bill that would eliminate jail time entirely the first and second times someone is caught with a small amount of marijuana, HB14 would decrease the penalties for some simple possession convictions. A second conviction would be punishable by up to two years in prison, instead of up to five years. A third conviction would be punishable by up to five years, instead of up to 20 years. Prosecutors would no longer be able to use simple marijuana possession convictions to send offenders away for life as habitual offenders.

“It brings much-needed reform to Louisiana’s drug law,” Badon said.

The Louisiana District Attorneys Association took a neutral stance on HB14. “This is not an unreasonable bill,” said the association’s executive director, Pete Adams.

The ACLU of Louisiana opposed the measure in favor of even fewer restrictions for marijuana use.

Then Renatza came to the committee room table. He shook Badon’s hand, sat down beside him and advised legislators to slam the brakes on the bill.

“It always starts with lessening the penalties. It ends up with issues toward legalization. For that reason alone, we’re opposed,” Renatza said.

With Renatza’s statement, the debate took on an edge.

One committee member, state Rep. Steven Pylant, said drug use rips apart families.

Pylant, R-Crowville, is a former sheriff.

“It’s a shame and disgrace for us to do anything to minimize the consequence of drug use,” Pylant said.

Badon fired back with a story about a man in New Orleans who got drunk, drove the wrong way down the interstate and killed a woman who was on her way to work. He said the drunk driver got seven years in prison.

“We’re going to put a pot smoker away for 20 years? … That’s a shame and a disgrace,” he said.

Pylant questioned whether changes need to be made to the habitual offender law, which allows prosecutors to use three convictions to put criminals away for life in prison.

“How many folks are doing life for marijuana, Badon?” he asked.

Adams, who tried to stay out of the fray, came to the table and stressed that he was honor bound to remain unopposed to the bill. Adams then answered Pylant’s question, saying 18 people serving life as habitual offenders had a marijuana offense as one of the three strikes against them. He said four of the offenders’ habitual offender prosecutions involved marijuana possession.

“The background records on those will shock you,” he said.

State Rep. Ebony Woodruff, D-New Orleans, jumped in to denounce state law that doesn’t distinguish between amounts of marijuana. “Everything from a joint to a duffle bag size is treated the same. So a low-end user is a felon now. Is that really fair?” she asked.

State Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, told Badon that he had a divided family and suggested he voluntarily defer the bill. State Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge, chimed in to agree with Landry.

“Work it out a little,” Honoré advised.

With that, Badon blasted the sheriffs’ association.

“That was totally unprofessional and unethical,” he said. “That was the wrong thing to do. We could help a lot of people. Unfortunately, a lot of people in every parish are going to suffer because I was broadsided.”

Afterward, Renatza said the majority of committee members knew he was opposed to the decriminalization of marijuana. He said he is obligated to carry out the mandate of his membership.