A proposal to soften Louisiana’s harsh marijuana laws by reducing penalties for possession continues to gain steam in the Louisiana Legislature.
The Senate voted 27-12 Monday (May 25) to advance legislation that would create a new penalty system for marijuana possession dealing with amounts less than 2.5 pounds.
The measure’s sponsor, J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said his bill (SB 241) brings Louisiana’s marijuana laws closer in line with other states, “in a way that is more humane.” For example, the bill reduces the maximum penalty for possession from 20 years in prison to eight, raises the threshold for a felony-level possession charge and adds a second-chance provision for first-time offenders.
Under current law, the maximum penalties for possession of any amount of marijuana up to 60 pounds are a $500 fine and six moths in jail for a first offense (a misdemeanor), a $2,500 fine and five years in prison for a second offense (a felony); and a $5,000 fine and a 20-year prison term for a third or subsequent offense (a felony).
Morrell’s bill does not change penalties for first-offense possession of marijuana dealing with amounts between 14 grams and 2.5 pounds. The legislation makes possession of less than 14 grams of marijuana punishable by maximum sentence of a $300 fine and 15 days in jail. Second offenses are a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail; third offenses are a felony punishable by up to a $2,500 fine and two years in prison; and fourth or subsequent offenses are a felony punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and eight years in prison.
The proposal also allows offenders to apply to have their record expunged if they aren’t convicted of a marijuana violation within two years of the first offense. Offenders, however, would only be allowed one opportunity to expunge their records of marijuana convictions.
The proposal does not change current the penalties pertaining to possession of synthetic marijuana.
Support from the Legislature this session on Morrell’s bill and another piece of legislation that seeks to lower marijuana penalties is a departure from past years. That’s largely because, Morrell said, the influential Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and the Louisiana District Attorney Association do not oppose the legislation. He worked with the groups this year to get his bill into a posture on which they felt comfortable maintaining a neutral stance.
In contrast, Morrell said, dozens of sheriffs appeared at a Senate committee hearing last year to show their opposition to his bill, which sought similar statutory changes. Morrell’s bill died in that committee in 2014 after more than three hours of debate on the measure. This year’s version of the bill advanced out of a Senate judiciary committee without objection from any lawmakers on the panel.
The legislation is expected to generate a savings over five years of approximately $17 million.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Morrell said Monday the law enforcement groups were willing to compromise partly in effort to reverse the perception associated with Louisiana’s world-leading incarceration rate.
“There is a tremendous perception problem in Louisiana regarding the “Cool Hand Luke” (approach) to incarceration,” Morrell said. His bill addresses both the “real and perceived” issue of Louisiana’s harsh marijuana laws that he described as “draconian.”
In most states, the maximum penalty for simple marijuana possession does not exceed one year of jail time. By reducing the maximum penalty for repeat offenders from 20 years in prison to eight years, Louisiana’s penalties are still eight times higher than surrounding states, Morrell said. But he added that at least they are not 20 times higher.
Morrell’s bill now heads to the House for consideration. See how senators voted on the legislation here.