The case for statewide decriminalization of cannabis in Louisiana

marijuana leaf

It has been almost three years since the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to make simple possession of cannabis a municipal misdemeanor. One year ago the City of Baton Rouge followed suit. Since being enacted crime, and specifically homicide, dropped precipitously in New Orleans (2018 had the lowest homicides since the early 1970’s). The two are not intrinsically intertwined but there is a solid foundation that this policy keeps crime in check.

Sensible policies reflect the will of the citizens and build trust in a criminal justice system that for far too long has not reflected the values of the community. Polling since 2014 demonstrates that citizens want to see simple possession as a civil, not criminal charge. Before 2016 Louisiana arrested 17,000 people per year for simple possession of cannabis. With New Orleans and Baton Rouge enacting municipal ordinances that made simple possession a municipal and not a criminal offense, the yearly arrests are down to 12,000-13,000 annually.

Despite use being equal between African Americans and Caucasians African Americans are arrested at four times the rate that Caucasians are. In the case of enforcing cannabis prohibition justice is not blind in Louisiana. Just as the Jim Crow era laws of non-unanimous juries was shed this year it is time the State of Louisiana follows the precedent set by its two largest cities.

The decriminalization of cannabis – which should more closely be associated with alcohol rather than narcotics and opioids – would remove criminal sanctions for possession and the devastating repercussions that criminal charges inflict on individuals, families, and society. As a starting point can we ask, “is the status quo working?” One could argue that by increasing the number of arrests, it sends a message that local law enforcement is “tough on crime.” But if the goal was to curb recreational use with increased enforcement it has been a failure on every level.

In fact, recreational use continues to rise and medical research has long recognized the medicinal value of cannabis.  Federal laws have inhibited the endorsement of cannabis except in medical journals. Seniors have nationally seen the greatest increase in usage. Has prohibition made us safer? No, it has not.

What kind of repercussions does a cannabis conviction have on people? Loss of the ability to get a student loan, loss of assisted housing, and even potentially getting a job. A cannabis conviction derails lives by stripping away the supports of society that underprivileged individuals can rely on to establish stable lives.  Continuing to do the same things and expect different results is the definition of insanity.  A serious look at decriminalization is a logical way to make the criminal justice system more reflective of the values of its citizens.

Louisiana has made headway in criminal justice reform over the past few legislative sessions and now it is the second most incarcerated state in the nation and world. If 12,000 people a year were diverted from the criminal justice system for the use of this plant it would make a serious reform in Louisiana’s criminal justice system. This type of reform would save the local and state governments money, clear up backlogs of criminal courts and restore public trust in the criminal justice system. The state’s current policies have not been good for the national perception of Louisiana. The cases of Bernard Noble and Corey Ladd shoved Louisiana into the national and international spotlight in a deluge of negative publicity and sentiment.

New Orleans’ first cannabis ordinance enacted by the City Council in 2011 allowed for first-time offenders to be issued a municipal summons. Prior to that, the New Orleans Police Department arrested an average of 6000 people a year for simple possession. Between 2011-2016 that number dropped to roughly 2500 arrests a year. Between June of 2016 to June of 2017 those arrests dropped to 17.

It’s estimated that it takes an average of five hours per arrest to take a person to lockup, write police reports, and court time. By this metric NOPD was using 15,000 police hours a year enforcing cannabis prohibition. That is 15,000 hours that could be spent tackling violent crime in New Orleans.  This is a significant amount of time to have more officers patrolling the community. There is a connection between more officers on the street and the ability to see a decline in violent crime. Everyone benefits from these results. So could the rest of Louisiana.  The state has a violent crime problem.  This commonsense policy of issuing a municipal summons for simple drug offenses could benefit everyone in Louisiana.

The ACLU’s report on cannabis enforcement stated that Louisiana’s local and state governments spend $46.5 million dollars annually enforcing the prohibition of cannabis possession. That is a massive investment that could be spent on critical resource development such as education and infrastructure. Legislators know the current laws have not aligned with public opinion for many years.  The legislature has not adopted these logical policies.  Many sensible reforms come to the state House of Representatives Administration of Criminal Justice Committee only to die.

The amount of power that the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and the District Attorney’s Association wield cannot be underestimated. Especially in rural parishes these two elected officials often decide who is elected to House and Senate seats. Because most of these offices’ employees serve at the pleasure of the Sheriff or District Attorney with no civil service protections, they readily have the infrastructure to help elect their chosen candidate or defeat someone they do not approve of. They use these powers to make sure that the status quo is not disrupted and money from court diversion programs is secured for their own purposes and not necessarily to the benefit of the state.

Court diversion programs were originally adopted to keep people out of jail for simple drug offenses. The reality of this policy is it keeps people in the criminal justice system for long periods of time at great social, economic and familial costs to the defendant.  Often participants in these programs must pay for weekly urinalysis if not more for periods of up to two to three years. This benefits drug testing labs and often takes up valuable seats in rehabilitation programs that should be used for people coping with addiction to opioids. Many District Attorneys and Sheriffs use these diversion programs as a cash cow that they do not have to get approved by the local government in regular budget processes. These are monies that they have become dependent on.  This is especially true in times when parishes are facing budgetary shortfalls. Since a vast majority of people arrested are poor or working poor sheriffs and district attorneys do not feel that they are alienating important segments of the voting public. When following the money these organizations prove to be no exception to the rule.

The fact that laws are enforced disproportionately depending on socio-economic status is not lost on people who bear the burden of a system that rewards local law enforcement with federal dollars in high drug arrest areas of the state. Decriminalization levels the playing field for all residents of Louisiana. This is something all can agree on to make the criminal justice system fairer. When the criminal justice system is seen as being fair it restores trust in the system that too many people have distrusted for generations.

It also makes law enforcement safer for officers; no longer compelled to enforce arcane laws that are being broken in the Garden District as often as they are in Central City.  Through years of outreach rank and file police officers welcomed the ability to write a municipal summons for what they overwhelmingly see as a non-issue as compared with having to arrest an individual.  This increases resident’s trust in law enforcement and decreases fear of law enforcement excesses. That builds trust to talk to law enforcement on real crime that has a clear victim. This is an extremely relevant issue in Louisiana and violent crime will not decrease until the system is brought into balance. There is no silver bullet, but this shows that it is possible to improve upon a policy that does not reflect the values of the community that elected officials have sworn to uphold.

It will not be surprising to see the state of Texas adopt decriminalization in 2019. This policy has been adopted as a platform of the Texas Republican Party and is a great compromise to the voices of legalization in this region. If the legislature does not make this commonsense move in 2019 Louisiana citizens should take this to the local and parish level to be better prepared for the 2020 legislative session. Get involved, reach out to the Parish and City councilpersons, state representative and senator who represents you and let them know you support reassessing penalties for simple possession of cannabis.

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