BATON ROUGE, LA. 27 May, 2015 – Louisiana’s jaw-dropping penalties for marijuana possession could soon be dumped in history’s trash basket, with the passage of two bills this month.
Senate Bill 241, sponsored by Jean Paul “JP” Morrell, was approved by a floor vote of 27 to 12 on 25 May and now advances to the House for consideration. In a strategy that increases the odds that reform legislation will become law, the Senate’s Judiciary Committee then amended House Bill 149 on Tuesday to create a mirror version of the senate bill. Because HB 149 has already been approved by the House, the amended version is less likely to meet with opposition. Both bills would reduce the state’s draconian penalties for marijuana convictions.
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation and beats out countries like Iran for the inglorious distinction of worst rate in the world. You can half-kill someone in Louisiana, causing unconsciousness, extreme pain, disfigurement and substantial risk of death, and the penalty is 5 years and up to $2000 fine. By comparison, first time marijuana possession offenses for even the smallest amount are misdemeanors punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. Second and subsequent offenses are deemed felonies and carry prison terms ranging from 5-20 years and fines of between a $2,500-$5,000.
Public outrage over unjust sentencing and incarceration for profit recently found focus in the Bernard Noble case. Noble is serving 13 years after being pulled over for riding a bicycle on the wrong side of the road in 2010. Police found him with less than three grams of cannabis – a couple of joints – an amount that would get a civil fine of $100 in many states. Breadwinner for a family of seven, Noble was convicted under the state’s habitual offender laws because he had two prior convictions well over a decade earlier.
Under the new bills, Noble’s offense would not be deemed a felony. Possession of less than 14 grams of cannabis (about half an ounce) would be punishable by no more than 15 days in jail and/or a $300 fine. Prison terms would rise for subsequent offenses – six months for a second offense and up to $1,000 fine; two years for a third offense and $2,500; eight years and up to $5000 fine for subsequent offenses. The Senate bill also allows offenders to apply for first-time cannabis convictions to be expunged from their record after two years without further offenses.
Lawmakers have until mid-June, when the session ends, to get a bill passed and sent to Governor Jindal for approval.