Twenty years. That’s 7,300 days. It’s over a quarter of the average American lifespan, and in Louisiana, it’s the amount of time a person can potentially serve for simple possession of marijuana.
While you’re picking your jaw up off the floor after hearing that, I should emphasize that we’re not talking about dealing. Simple possession refers to quantities too low for distribution. It is a misdemeanor, but only on the first offense. A second offense graduates to a felony punishable by up to five years in jail. After third offense, the maximum goes up to twenty years.
Regardless of one’s opinion of marijuana, 20 years in Angola for reefer is more than a bit excessive. A person caught with a single dime bag for a third time can receive a sentence double of the maximum for aggravated battery, inarguably a far worse crime. Indeed, the maximum penalty for simple rape is only five years more.
Louisiana’s maximum penalties are also out-of-step with other states, such as Texas and Mississippi, where marijuana possession is always a misdemeanor regardless of repeat offenses.
Alas, despite a broad recognition that Louisiana’s penalties for repeat simple marijuana are wildly disproportionate, legislative efforts to bring rationality to Louisiana’s marijuana laws have proven a bit complicated. Last year, proposed legislation for loosening marijuana penalties died in the Senate.
This year, several bills are pending in the legislature, although it is unclear if any actually have a shot at passing. Even modest reform has not been met with open arms.
One of the proposed bills, HB 14, was pushed as a “compromise” by New Orleans House Rep. Austin Badon. Badon’s bill, which would have reduced penalties and fines but maintained felony statute for second and third marijuana offenses, was shelved after Badon was sandbagged by the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association.
The head of the Association, Michael Ranatza, opined that reduced penalties would set Louisiana on a slippery slope towards legalization. “It always starts with lessening the penalties,” Ranatza testified before the House criminal justice committee this past Thursday. “It ends up with issues toward legalization.” Heaven forbid!
The testimony was apparently news to Badon, who claimed that the Sherriff’s Association had pledged to remain neutral on HB 14. Badon derided Ranatza’s behavior as “totally unprofessional and unethical.” Irrespectively, Ranatza’s testimony had the desired effect. Badon pulled the bill, ostensibly because he lacked the votes to move it forward.
To make matters worse, Badon’s bill was consistently opposed by the ACLU and the Pelican Institute because it didn’t go far enough. Although it is difficult to gainsay the argument that simple possession really isn’t serious enough to be a felony, even a minor one, their position may well doom any reform. The perfect, after all, is the enemy of the good.
Here, the “perfect” has taken the form of State Senator J.P. Morrell’s SB 292, which would reduce second and third offense marijuana possession down to a misdemeanor. Morrell also opposed HB 14 because, as a “compromise” bill, it could scuttle his push for a more ambitious reform. One wonders, however, if Morrell actually has the votes. It wouldn’t be the first time attempts at reform have died in the Senate.
Any bill that makes it out of the legislature appears likely to be signed into law. Governor Jindal indicated in January that he is open to medicinal marijuana, a far more ambitious reform.
The real question, then, is whether the legislature can get its act together and correct this massive injustice lurking in the law. It failed last year, and yet this year we’re being confronted with an all-or-nothing approach. If it works, we’ll should be glad that Badon’s bill failed. If it doesn’t, it will be another opportunity squandered.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.