City leadership in New Orleans got creative to push forward cannabis reform and decriminalization, as the city police struggle to gain back trust. On August 5, the New Orleans City Council passed several agenda items to end penalties for small amounts of cannabis possession and pardon about 10,000 convictions and pending cases.
According to a news release, the council was able to remove penalties for simple possession of marijuana in New Orleans by exercising its power to pardon cases now and retrospectively. The ordinances that were passed include Ordinance 33,328.
City officials said the effort is aimed to gain community trust with police—which they could really use right now. Another goal is to allow New Orleans police to focus on reducing violent crime instead of wasting their time with petty marijuana charges. While the New Orleans City Council doesn’t have the authority to legalize adult-use marijuana, it has the ability to decriminalize it through an ordinance changing police policy.
Smoking cannabis will remain prohibited in public spaces, but instead of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) issuing a drug summons, it will just be a ticket in violation of the Smoke-Free Air Act—which is not a drug charge.
“These new policies will help NOPD build community trust and use saved manpower hours to address major issues like shootings, murders, and the overall prevention of violence in our city,” said Council President Helena Moreno. “We must begin to rethink the historical practices that have over-incarcerated, over-fined, and stigmatized our communities for decades. The time to end the criminalization of cannabis possession is now. I’m proud of what this City Council has accomplished today. This is historic.”
Pardons for about 10,000 past offenses are expected to go into effect immediately. The automatic pardons of future offenses, however, won’t go into effect until September 15—giving police time to adjust to the new policy. The City Council will be required to pardon anyone arrested for possession of marijuana between now and then.
The New Orleans City Council posted figures to support the legislation. “Recent studies show Black individuals are 3.4x more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Louisiana Despite comparable national marijuana usage rates. From 2010 to 2018, these arrests increased over 18% across the state,” the council posted.
The Roots of Cannabis Law in New Orleans
Marijuana-related arrests plummeted in the city a few years ago, after a similar policy change. Between June 2016 and May 2017, only one percent of meetings between police and people accused of marijuana possession ended in an arrest.
At the time, City Councilwoman Susan Guidry explained to local media, “In our estimation, the punishment more neatly matches the crime.”
These efforts go beyond New Orleans and stretch across the state. For years, one of the Louisiana House of Representatives’ objectives was to decrease the sheer number of people in Louisiana jails.
In 2018, the Louisiana Pharmacy Board awarded Ruston Henry, pharmacist and owner of H&W Drug Store, with a permit to operate one of the state’s first ten medical marijuana dispensaries. The drug store was considered to be a pillar in the community for decades.
Founded in 1961, H&W Drug Store has changed hands and changed locations a couple of times over the years. But the pharmacy has always been a fixture of New Orleans’ 9th Ward, serving the community for over half a century.
The new legislation signals a major shift in priorities. This will allow police to focus on actual violent crimes in which there are victims.