(Seth A. McConnell, Denver Post file)

Louisiana law enforcement reconsider state’s ultra-strict penalties for pot

BATON ROUGE, La. — Marijuana enthusiasts and law enforcement don’t agree on much. But there is one point both concede: Louisiana’s marijuana laws are exceptionally strict.

Caught with a small amount of pot? Face up to 20 years in prison on your third arrest.

And even though a medical marijuana law has been on the books since 1991, it’s essentially meaningless because the state hasn’t developed guidelines to cultivate and distribute the drug.

That could soon change. The state’s powerful law enforcement associations, which have stymied efforts to change Louisiana marijuana laws in the past, are shifting their stance — even if only a little.

For the first time, the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association has removed its opposition to a bill that would make medical marijuana available to sufferers of cancer, glaucoma and a severe form of cerebral palsy, though smoking the drug would still be illegal. That measure, sponsored by Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, won passage Monday from the Senate and heads next to the House for debate.

The Louisiana District Attorney Association opposes medical marijuana, but it does support decreased sentences for people with multiple marijuana possession convictions — a measure by Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, that is scheduled for consideration Wednesday in the House criminal justice committee.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell said the de facto response used to be: “We are really tough on marijuana — and it is working.”

“Now we are having conversations about marijuana that were not even possible five years ago,” the New Orleans Democrat said.

Discussions about reducing sentences in Louisiana follow the court case of Bernard W. Noble, a New Orleans father of seven, who was sentenced to over 13 years after he was arrested on his way to work for having two joints. Noble’s court battle came to an end last year after losing his last appeal.

Former New Orleans Saints player Darren Sharper was “in possession of very potent and powerful narcotics used to perform sexual assaults against women and gets nine years in federal prison, whereas you can have a guy with two cigarettes for his own use and he gets 13 years?” said Badon, who is proposing to reduce the top sentence for a repeat marijuana possession to eight years.

Morrell is sponsoring a bill that would reduce sentences more drastically, decriminalizing a first offense and capping jail time for repeat offenders at 30 days.

Pete Adams, executive director of the District Attorney Association, described Morrell’s bill as going “radically far,” though he indicated he’s open to limited negotiation.

Cities and states across the U.S. have increasingly reconsidered get-tough-on-drug laws. Eighteen states including New York, Nevada and Mississippi have decriminalized marijuana possession, and recreational use is legal in Washington and Colorado.

At the same time, polls show Louisiana attitudes are changing toward marijuana.

Support for legalizing medical marijuana had reached 60 percent, a public opinion survey by LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab found earlier this year. And 67 percent said people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana shouldn’t serve jail time.

The cash-strapped state — where one in 14 arrests is for marijuana possession — could also benefit, saving an estimated $23 million a year by reducing felony marijuana possession to a misdemeanor, according to Louisianans for Responsible Reform.

Still, pot proponents shouldn’t get their hopes up too high.

Measures to decriminalize marijuana, or mimic California’s permissive medical marijuana law, appear to be nonstarters — including a bill currently before the Legislature calling for a statewide election to determine whether pot should be legal.

Asked whether law enforcement was softening its stance on marijuana laws, Michael Ranatza, head of the sheriffs’ association, said he doesn’t see a shift.

Still, the advocacy of a colleague’s terminally-ill daughter led Ranatza to a recent change of heart regarding medical marijuana, and he passionately pleaded for lawmakers to approve Mills’ medical marijuana bill.

“This is about medicine,” Ranatza said. “This has nothing to do with a shift of position or our belief.”