Reduced marijuana penalties rejected by La. Senate panel

A state Senate panel effectively killed legislation Tuesday that would have reduced criminal penalties for simple possession of marijuana.

The 4-3 vote came after the panel shot down a compromise attempt, under which possession of an ounce or less would have been a misdemeanor.

The Senate Committee on Judiciary C action marked the second setback in recent weeks in attempts to lessen penalties for some simple marijuana possession arrests. A House bill stalled in committee in early April.

The state’s sheriffs and district attorneys opposed the measure, Senate Bill 323, sponsored by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans.

“We are talking about decriminalizing marijuana,” Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said. He said the reduction in penalties would signal that “We have less intolerance. We are willing to accept less. You know what you get when you do that? You get less.”

“This bill seeks to make marijuana more accessible and more acceptable,” said the Louisiana District Attorneys Association president, Charles Scott, of Caddo Parish.

Scott said prosecutors look at individual circumstances in possession cases.

Bill proponents said the marijuana possession penalties today are needlessly increasing state prison costs and destroying lives as people end up with felony convictions, making it hard for them to get jobs or serve in the military. They questioned the broad discretion of prosecutors and disparate sentences.

“There are terrible human costs. Rather than getting treatment … we lock people up for decades,” Morrell said. “We are not trying to decriminalize marijuana but how we treat it.”

Morrell noted a Legislative Fiscal Office analysis that showed $23 million could be saved.

SB323 co-sponsor state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said the civil rights of people “get violated every day because the punishment does not fit the crime.”

Adley said he has a nephew arrested for possession more than two decades ago and that felony arrest has plagued him.

“You try to find a job. It doesn’t happen,” he said. “You are condemning everything they touch.”

State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, said there is a perception in her community that young black people are going to jail more when they are caught with marijuana.

“Perception can be reality,” she said.

Under today’s law, the first-offense penalty for marijuana possession is a fine of up to $500, up to six months in jail or both. A second offense would bring a fine of between $250 and $2,000, up to five years in jail, or both. There also is a provision for probation with participation in a substance abuse program required as well as community service work. For third and subsequent offenses, the jail time increases up to five years and a potential $5,000 fine. The offenses can also be used in enhanced sentencing.

SB323 would have reduced the penalty for possession of marijuana for any offense, not only first offense, to a fine of up to $100, or imprisonment for up to six months, or both.

The executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, Michael Ranatza, said the $100 fine is less than that for a traffic ticket for running a stop sign. He said the law helps in the “war on drugs.”

Morrell said other states have adopted similar marijuana possession penalties as being proposed.

Bishop Ronnie Allen, of California, said the lower penalties are not working in his state. “By decriminalizing a drug, you are not going to solve that problem,” he said.

Former Texas legislator Jerry Madden, who chaired that state’s House corrections committee, testified how Texas implemented the change.

“It saves money, saves lives and reverses the trend,” he said.

Former Michigan House Speaker Craig DeRoche said the resources spent sending marijuana possessers to prison can be better served on drug treatment.

But committee Chairman Robert Kostelka, R-Monroe, said states proponents cite don’t allow possession of up to 60 pounds of marijuana to be classified a misdemeanor.

Morrell and Adley, a committee member, agreed to revise the legislation so the reduced penalty would only affect those in possession of a small amount. The proposed amendment would have called for an ounce of marijuana or less and the penalty would have been up to a $500 fine, up to six months in jail or both.

“What this bill seeks to have is a more compassionate outlook,” Morrell said.

The amendment died when three senators voted for it and four against.

The committee then voted 4-3 to defer action on the measure. Voting to defer action were Kostelka and state Sens. Elbert Guillory, R-Opelousas; Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan; and Bodi White, R-Central. Voting against deferral were Adley, Dorsey-Colomb and state Sen. Fred Mills, R-New Iberia.