NOLA Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession

While Louisiana continues to have some of the fiercest penalties against marijuana possession in the United States, the City of New Orleans hopes to become a positive influence on this antiquated system by showing the rest of the state that it's no longer necessary to put habitual pot offenders in jail.

On Thursday, the City Council approved an ordinance in a unanimous vote of 7 to 0 that would allow the New Orleans Police Department to handle all small time marijuana offenders with a simple citation instead of entering them into the criminal justice system. Although officers working the NOLA beat already have the option of ticketing first time offenders, the same courtesy is not presently offered to those with this minor transgression already on their record.

Under the new ordinance, which was introduced earlier this year by Councilwoman Susan Guidry, anyone caught with small amounts of weed, despite their past, would be punished only with a fine – police would no longer drag offenders to jail to answer to the court.

An earlier draft of Guidry’s proposal suggested that officers would have the freedom to issue verbal and written warnings to some offenders, but the language was changed prior to the vote. The updated version would allow city police to issue first time offenders a fine of $40, while the monetary penalties would top out at $100 for fourth and consecutive offenses.

All that is left now if for Mayor Mitch Landrieu to grace the ordinance with his signature for the law to take effect. Yesterday, in a statement supporting the Council’s latest action, Landrieu said, “The ordinance will become law.”

Unfortunately, even though the ordinance appears it will soon become a part of the NOLA way, there is a possibility that petty pot offenders could still incur the wrath of state police. As it stands, Louisiana statute dictates that the same offense – possession of 14 grams or less – is punishable with up to 15 days in jail and a maximum fine of $300.

Depending on the situation, the city could also see some harassment coming from the local cops. A spokesperson for the NOPD told that the department is still trying to figure out how it will enforce the ordinance, but that they are currently developing “guidelines for determining when it is appropriate to charge under state law instead of local law.”

Although there are no guarantees that NOLA’s move to decriminalize will prompt the state to adopt a similar course of action anytime in the immediate future, policy experts, like Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority, believe these types of ordinances, which are happening all over the country, “do have far-reaching political impacts than can propel further change.” 

However, the best the Louisiana Legislature has to offer, so far, in 2016, is a proposal by Representative Greg Miller that would allow pot offenders to get a second chance as long as they can stay out of trouble for two years. This bill is among several marijuana-related measures to be discussed sometime this year. 

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