Louisiana, which has become infamous for enforcing some of the toughest laws in the United States against marijuana offenders, could experience a significant level of reform this year in the way the state prosecutes those who get busted with the herb.
Earlier this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee put their stamp of approval on a piece of legislation (House Bill 149) aimed at reducing the penalties inflicted on individuals with multiple convictions for pot possession. The full Senate will now deliberate the proposal.
The latest vote is an important step for marijuana reform in Louisiana. After all, a similar proposal, which was introduced in 2014 by Senator J.P. Morrell, never even made it out of committee alive. Some believe the change of heart in the state legislature has to do with the recent support by law enforcement groups, who have all agreed not to intervene with the progress of the bill.
If the proposal manages to go the distance, the majority of the state’s penalties for minor pot possession would be amended. For starters, a provision would be included that gives first-time offenders a second chance at salvation before being thrown to the wolves of the Department of Corrections. These individuals would simply need to refrain from receiving another charge for two years, and the offense would be expunged from their record.
Habitual offenders, however, would still face prison time, but the sentences would be greatly reduced. Right now, a person with a third offense for possession in Louisiana can get locked up for 20 years, as well as pay a fine of $5,000. Under HB 149, individuals convicted several times for possession would never spend more than eight years in prison.
Although the punishments are still severe, marijuana activists are encouraged by Louisiana’s attempt to step out of the dark ages and work towards a better system for dealing with non-violent drug offenders.
“This is a long-sought opportunity to take a more compassionate and commonsense approach to marijuana,” Yolande Cadore, director of strategic partnerships at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “Louisiana's overdue for a major overhaul of its drug policies and this is a good first step."
Statistics show that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate out of all the states in America—a large percentage of these prisoners are behind bars for drug violations. In fact, 18,000 Louisiana residents are arrested for drug crimes every year, according to the DPA.