Parish leaders oppose legal pot
Police, prosecutors and legislators for the parish disagree on whether marijuana laws contribute to Louisiana leading the nation in incarceration rates and if, or how much, pot laws should be tweaked.
Nine parish leaders were asked their opinion about that relationship and if they think Louisiana should join the nascent movement to loosen laws on marijuana or perhaps legalize it.
Fifty-three percent of Louisiana voters think the state should “allow marijuana to be regulated and taxed similarly to alcohol,” for adults 21 and older, according to a 2013 poll commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union.
State Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said he cannot see the Legislature legalizing marijuana use and “I don’t see me being able to support use of marijuana,” but the issue needs to be examined.
Louisiana allows a jail sentence of up to six months for a first-offense possession of pot, five years for a second offense and a third-offense conviction carries a minimum 20-year prison sentence.
“We have to address the issue of how many people we have in jail and whether the use and distribution of marijuana contributes to it,” Allain said. “I don’t have a firm position until I listen to both sides of the debate.”
The acceptance of pot use is troubling to Berwick Police Chief James Richard who said he is opposed to making penalties more lenient.
Richard sees a weakening of moral fiber in the country. He said jail terms are meant to be punishment and not rehabilitation and to be an effective deterrent, punishment must be consistently meted out.
“I am definitely against doing anything that would make it easier to obtain,” Richard said of marijuana.
District Attorney Phil Haney said there are health and addiction issues to be considered. Haney predicted relaxing marijuana laws would lead to an increased number of motorists driving impaired and workers operating dangerous equipment while under the influence of pot.
“Why add to the problems we already have by making another drug legal that can be abused?” he asked. “Alcohol is already with us. Should we have alcohol? I think that is a relevant question.”
The Louisiana Legislative Fiscal Office estimated relaxing penalties could save the state $2.2 million in reduced incarceration costs.
Haney said claims that marijuana legalization, or reduced penalties, would reduce prison populations are not accurate. Louisiana’s incarceration rates are not related to marijuana laws, he said.
“People do not go to jail on first- and often not for second-offense possession,” Haney said. “Our office leads the way in helping people with a drug problem through our drug courts.” The majority of people in prison on marijuana offenses have violated their probation with other offenses, he said.
State Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Gray, is against legalizing marijuana but says the $40,000 annually spent on housing a single prisoner needs to be addressed. Sentencing procedures for non-violent crimes need to be changed and those individuals should be on an electronically monitored system which they must pay for out of their pockets, Harrison said. That could be done for about $4.50 daily he claimed.
Patrick LaSalle, police chief in Patterson, does not believe relaxing drug laws is an answer to the state’s high incarceration rate.
“Something has to be done about the number of people in our prisons, but, I am not for legalizing marijuana,” LaSalle said. “What will you do with everybody that is in jail for possession if you legalize marijuana?”
Over 20 years ago, Louisiana legalized the prescribing of marijuana for specific reasons such as for use by patients with glaucoma and patients suffering from symptoms related to chemotherapy treatment. But, the Department of Health and Hospitals did not provide a means to dispense marijuana.
On Jan 22, Gov. Bobby Jindal said he is open to the idea of medical marijuana in Louisiana under “strict circumstances,” but is opposed to other forms of marijuana legalization.
Three days before his death Friday night, Morgan City Police Chief Travis Crouch, said he sees advantages in the medical use of marijuana and was keeping an open mind on the wisdom of loosening pot laws.
“I am willing to talk about the elephant in the room,” Crouch said. “But, I need to see the proposed legislation before I can comment on it. … I am keeping an open mind on the subject. But whatever the law is, we will enforce it.”
State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, said he is not for legalizing marijuana beyond medical reasons. Yet, he thinks “an educated discussion needs to be held … and, as in anything, I will listen with an open mind to that debate.”
James Fontenot, director of the district attorney’s pre-trial diversion program, said marijuana should stay illegal because it is a gateway drug that leads to harder drugs.
“In my 17 years working with offenders and working for a brief time as a counselor, I have seen what it does to families and relationships,” Fontenot said. “It is not good.”
St. Mary Parish Sheriff spokeswoman Traci Landry said the sheriff’s office does not comment on “hypothetical” legislation.
A 2013 study found blacks and whites use marijuana at nearly identical rates, but blacks in Louisiana are three times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
LaSalle said he deplores that inequity of who is arrested and goes to jail in Louisiana.
“You cannot tell me there is not something wrong with that picture,” LaSalle said.
The Louisiana House voted 54-38 last year to approve a bill to reduce marijuana possession penalties for second and subsequent offenses. The bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but was not debated on the Senate floor.