Why Should Louisiana Legalize Cannabis Now?

Photo Credit: Miloslav Hamřík

This week State Representative John Bagneris of New Orleans pre filed HB509 to legalize the production, sale, and taxation of cannabis in Louisiana. A similar bill has been floated before but now is the time for the legislature to move forward with ending prohibition once and for all in the great state of Louisiana. This battle royale has been a long time coming and will undoubtedly bring on wails from the Louisiana Sheriffs’ and District Attorney’s associations. Let’s try to look at how moving forward with this bill will benefit all residents of Louisiana.

The History of Prohibition

The prohibition of cannabis can be traced back to right after the prohibition of alcohol came to an end. The head of the alcohol prohibition unit was named Harry Anslinger. The Bureau of Narcotics was formed to battle narcotics in the United States and Anslinger was chosen to lead it. The problem was that there was not enough narcotics abuse to justify the agency’s existence. Most of the agents were former prohibition enforcement agents and were not held in high regard by a large swath of citizens. This was at the height of the Depression and no one would hire them. This led Anslinger to find a “drug” that could be targeted, giving them never-ending job security.

Anslinger chose cannabis and used a Mexican slang word for it to make it appear foreign and dangerous – marijuana. Cannabis was a plant widely used, at the time, by Latin immigrants and African Americans involved with jazz music. The Bureau of Narcotics used the overriding xenophobia and racism of the time to try and push Anslinger’s agenda. He then teamed up with William Hurst, the father of yellow journalism, and his newspaper empire to make this a reality. Hurst had recently lost large amounts of land after the Mexican revolution and was already on an anti-Mexican crusade. They were able to pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 in several hours through the US Congress – a rare event even in those days. They did this because hardly anyone knew what marijuana was! Medically, it was always referred to as cannabis at the time.

Thus began America’s longest standing war against a plant, a war the plant has continuously won – but the collateral damage continues to stain our national soul. Fast forward to 1970, when the Marijuana Tax Act was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. President Nixon commissioned former Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Schafer to look at cannabis. Schafer’s report concluded that cannabis should be decriminalized nationwide. President Nixon had the report shelved and not released. Why? Because President Nixon’s advisors told him he could not criminalize anti war and civil rights protests, BUT he could criminalize the drugs that were popular with those groups. Thus, the Controlled Substances Act was passed; it scheduled cannabis with heroin and LSD as drugs with a high chance of abuse with no redeeming medical value. The era of the modern drug war had begun.

A Wave of Decriminalization

Throughout the 1970’s many states, including Mississippi and North Carolina in the South, decriminalized cannabis possession (23 states after New Mexico did so this year). By the 1990’s states began setting therapeutic cannabis programs – led by California in 1996 (33 states currently). In 2014, Colorado and Washington state legalized adult use of cannabis. They have been followed by Oregon, Alaska, Nevada, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, the District of Columbia and Michigan. Illinois, New Jersey and New York are likely to join this group this year as well. Canada has embraced legal cannabis and the Mexican Supreme Court has affirmed the right to grow and possess cannabis as well. This wave will continue to grow, and it will benefit Louisiana to be at the forefront of this in the South for a variety of reasons.

An Economic Opportunity

The economic argument for legalization in Louisiana is one that is hard to underestimate. Just enforcing cannabis possession prohibition costs the state $46.5 million a year, according to the 2013 ACLU report Black and White. Colorado nets over $250 million a year in cannabis tax revenues in contrast; that does not include municipal tax revenues. The City of Denver nets over $74 million a year in cannabis revenues. Colorado is a good case to compare to Louisiana because it also has a tourist heavy economy and is surrounded by states that still have prohibition. Florida voters will most likely vote on adult use cannabis in 2020; that is the closest state to Louisiana considering adult use at this time. We have the opportunity to lead the way in the South and to those who dare – win.

If we create an industry before federal prohibition ends, we will have an industry that we can export to our neighboring states as they end their prohibition. If we wait, we will have to try and compete against established industries in the West. There will not be the incentive and industrial tax base if it is cheaper to simply ship cannabis from the West Coast. That is the reason that most vegetables are farmed from California’s Central Valley and shipped nationwide.

One of the common arguments that you will hear from our opponents is that we do not need to introduce another drug to our community, yet they fail to recognize that cannabis has been part of New Orleans’ (so, therefore, Louisiana) culture for well over 100 years. If not, why did the New Orleans City Council ban cannabis in 1924 for fear it would lead to race mixing? In 2016 Councilwoman Guidry did a poll in which 32.5% of respondents admitted to using cannabis. That is roughly 125,000 consumers in New Orleans alone. Taking cannabis from the underground economy to an above ground regulated industry creates solid middle-class jobs, a sustainable revenue stream for cities that choose to participate, and gives consumers a safe, reliable product. These projections do not even take into account the peripheral industries that would benefit from bringing this industry above ground. Security, packaging, legal compliance, and technology are just some of the peripheral fields that benefit from a legal marketplace.


Social Justice Issues

The social justice aspect of legalization cannot be overlooked. The way in which the law enforcement community has enforced cannabis prohibition has been inequitable, to say the least. Even though the use rates among Caucasians and African Americans are roughly the same, nationwide, African Americans are three times more likely to be arrested for possession than Caucasians. That holds true in Louisiana as well. Some communities face much higher ratios, such as Tangipahoa and St. Landry parishes, where African Americans are 10 and 11 times more likely to be arrested for possession, respectively.

The criminal justice system from the police to the prosecutorial team have consistently proven that they can not equitably enforce this prohibition. If they did, and middle- and upper-class people faced the same consequences as the poor, prohibition would have ended decades ago. This is simply a war on the poor among us and the system is set up to continue this war indefinitely.

The issues facing legalization in New Jersey and New York are not based on if cannabis should be legalized but how. Should there be guarantees to communities that have unfairly shouldered the burden of prohibition in this expanding marketplace? Will previous victims of the drug war see expungements? Will they be able to participate in this industry? We are learning the shortcomings of the legalization process in the same way we have seen therapeutic cannabis roll out in Louisiana – only the rich can participate.

Some states are navigating uncharted territory by tying in social justice into legalization legislation. Undoubtedly, this will make it tougher to get laws through the legislative process, but we applaud expanding the arguments past dollar and cents talking points. Monopolies simply do not work; competition breeds innovation and competitive pricing. Taxing legal cannabis too heavily means that the underground economy will continue to thrive (as do THC cap limits). A top priority should be to bring as much of the underground economy above ground as possible.

California is facing this problem right now. Instead of making it easy for the thousands of growers to participate in the new industry, they made taxes super high and put severe restrictions for people to move from the underground to above ground. People who are second and third generation growers are being left behind, people who will continue their family traditions in spite of legalization. Just as ending alcohol prohibition did not end bootlegging, there will always be a cannabis underground – the question is how best to limit its existence.

The Opposition

We know who the players are that will oppose any kind of adult use cannabis bill. The financial gains Louisiana Sheriffs and District Attorneys make from continuing prohibition (civil asset forfeiture and monies profited from diversion programs) are a huge motivation to continue the status quo. Pharmaceutical lobbyists will want to maintain their current customer base. In states that have legalized adult use or have robust therapeutic programs, we have seen opiate prescription use drop by over twenty percent (as well as a significant drop in opiate overdoses); that is billions of dollars at stake. For that kind of money, they do not care about the societal consequences of prohibition. There will be drug counseling companies that make millions off diversion mandated programs, programs that could be doing society a much bigger service by providing counseling to the tens of thousands of our fellow citizens of Louisiana who suffer from opiate addiction issues.

Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as repeating the same thing and expecting different results. We have listened to our opponents for decades and yet every day more people decide to use cannabis. The current approach is a dismal failure and will continue to fail until we look at different solutions. However Louisiana moves ahead in regards to ending cannabis prohibition, we must try and right the wrongs of the past and chart a new future. Our legislators need to hear from their constituents in regards to this topic for HB509, or others like it, to make it through the legislative process.

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