Pot penalties proposal passes panel

A state Senate panel Tuesday advanced legislation that would reduce the penalty for simple possession of marijuana.

The Senate Judiciary C Committee voted 4-2 for the House-passed measure sending it to the Senate floor for possible action in the waning days of the legislative session. Two-thirds of the senators would need to agree before House Bill 103 could be taken up for a vote by the upper chamber. The session must end by 6 p.m. Thursday.

HB103 would reduce the maximum prison time that an offender would be subject to on second and subsequent arrests.

On a second offense, the offender could be fined up to $500, imprisoned up to two years or both. The current fine can range from $250 to $2,000, maximum jail time is five years or both.

Under current law, a third or subsequent conviction would bring a fine of up to $5,000 and up to 20 years in prison. Under HB103, a third offense would subject the offender to a fine of up to $2,000, up to five years in prison or both, and fourth and subsequent offenses up to a $2,000 fine, up to eight years in prison or both.

The legislation also bars multiple simple marijuana convictions being used to charge an offender as a habitual offender.

Bill sponsor state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, said the change would yield a $2.2 million savings to the state in the first year. “There’s less people spending time in jail so taxpayers don’t have to pay for them,” Badon said.

“I don’t particularly see a big problem with this stuff,” said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, who said he saw marijuana used by those who served in Vietnam and Okinawa “by guys trying to get through.”

Sen. Elbert Guillory, R-Opelousas, noted that three U.S. presidents have said they used marijuana “although one said he didn’t inhale.”

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, opposed the move.

“I think we are sending the wrong message,” White said. “It’s okay to smoke marijuana in Louisiana in the future.”

State Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, worried about those could not afford to pay a $2,000 fine.

She said the offender should be allowed to do community service instead.

Louisiana District Attorneys Association executive director Pete Adams said community service is already an option judges have in sentencing.

The district attorneys took a neutral position on the bill.

Badon said the approach in his bill is reasonable.

“We could potentially put them away for 20 years and in some cases habitual offenders for life,” Badon said. “Our marijuana laws are more harsh than those for heinous crimes in Louisiana.”