A bill that would have reduced penalties for marijuana possession and saved the state an estimated $1.6 million annually in incarceration costs was narrowly shy of being considered for law during Louisiana’s 2013 legislative session, which convened April 8 and ended June 6.
House Bill 103 passed through the Louisiana House of Representatives 54-38. It then stalled in the Senate, and, because no bill can pass through either house after the 57th calendar day of the legislative session without a two-thirds majority, the 24-11 vote on June 6 to consider it for final passage fell short.
“It looked pretty apparent that it wasn’t going to pass,” said Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, who initially voted in favor of the bill, but voted against it on its last consideration. “It still wouldn’t have had the two-thirds vote. Had it come up in just a straight up or down vote, then I probably would have voted for the bill in final passage.”
Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, voted in favor of the bill, as did Lafayette’s Democratic Rep. Vincent Pierre and Republican Rep. Nancy Landry. Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, was absent. Seven of the 11 nay votes were cast by senators from north of Natchitoches, with the remaining four representing Baton Rouge, Livingston, Mandeville and Westwego.
Those facing punishment for first-time marijuana possession in Louisiana could see a $500 fine or six months in prison under current law, and HB 103, which was sponsored by Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, would have retained that penalty.
But it would have also reduced penalties for second-time marijuana possession convictions from a maximum fine of $2,000 to $500 and maximum prison time from five years to two. For third-time convictions, the current 20-year maximum prison sentence would be reduced to five, and fourth convictions would have limited imprisonment to eight years. Both of those penalties would have topped fines at $2,000.
“I didn’t have any philosophical or other types of problems with the bill itself,” added Gallot. “I think certainly the whole issue is one that probably needs some revisiting in light of the current state of criminal justice and the amount of money we’re spending to lock up folks for marijuana.”
The original text of the bill also aimed to bar the habitual-offender law — which provides enhanced penalties for those already convicted of felonies — from applying to marijuana felony convictions. This provision — which could have saved an estimated $17,425 annually per state-housed offender sentenced under the law and $8,902 annually per locally housed offender, according to the bill’s fiscal notes — was removed from an amended version of the bill.
“We spend a lot of money on (incarceration),” explained Pearson Cross, Ph.D, head of UL Lafayette’s political science department. “We don’t have a lot of money to spend. You almost never see state officials cutting prison budgets. They cut health care. They cut higher education. They trim in other areas, but the prison budgets, we’ve gotta keep them.”
UL economics department head Cary Heath, Ph.D., said the financial benefit of decriminalization doesn’t resolve the moral implication, although the costs behind marijuana prohibition are clear.
“Decriminalization means lower, or almost no, enforcement costs,” he noted. “The war on drugs, like so many ‘wars on,’ has been very expensive, requiring allocation of resources that have alternative uses. Worth it? Economic science can’t say. None of this says whether legalization is morally and ethically good or bad.”
But Heath said the idea of marijuana’s economic benefit still looms.
“Potential business investors don’t shy away from the possibility of marijuana legalization as they do the possibility of higher taxes or violent crime,” he added, “as opposed to the nonviolent use of marijuana.”
Cross noted Louisiana’s “Bible Belt” status influences its drug policy.
“People see marijuana usage in moralistic terms,” he explained. “They don’t necessarily see it as a social policy problem that’s tied in with the penal system and incarceration and other kinds of issues like that. They see it more as something you shouldn’t do — as bad behavior.”
Although western states have paved the way for pushing through medical marijuana laws and marijuana decriminalization — with both Washington and Colorado legalizing the plant for personal use — North Carolina and Mississippi have made the first moves toward decriminalization in the traditionally conservative Southern region. In both states, no jail time is possible for first-time offenders. Penalty for possession is limited to a $200 fine in North Carolina for 14 grams or fewer and a $250 fine in Mississippi for 30 grams or fewer.
Cross said it’s time for Louisiana to follow suit.
“This is clearly a win for Louisiana and for nearly everybody,” said Cross. “We save money, get some people out of the penal system, allow people to continue their lives without this habitual offender kind of thing that has severe penalties. It’s the trend in the nation. It’s a bill whose time has come. But it wasn’t for this session.”