St. Charles Herald-Guide

State lawmakers look at pros, cons of legalizing marijuana

By Kyle Barnett - January 10, 2014

With the rollout of the country’s first recreational marijuana laws in Washington state and Colorado, some Louisiana lawmakers are taking a look at the positives and negatives of legalizing marijuana in Louisiana.

While some are behind the effort to legalize marijuana in Louisiana, St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said he stands firmly against it.

“I am in opposition to the legalization of marijuana. I believe this would be sending the wrong message to our young people. There is no evidence that the prolonged use of this psychoactive drug makes for a productive adult,” he said. “A certain percentage of our youth will become addicted. I believe drug users are trying to escape reality.  While the ‘high’ produced by the THC in marijuana is fairly brief, the ‘impairment’ lasts for many hours after that.”

Marjorie Esman, director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, counters that such arguments could be applied to any number of behaviors people already engage in legally on an everyday basis.

“There are plenty of things that are legal that can harm people long-term. Cigarettes are legal and cigarettes have been demonstrated to have far more adverse effects than marijuana does. Alcohol does as well. There are all types of things that are legal that aren’t good for you, so that’s not a very convincing argument,” she said.

However, Champagne said that he has seen the death and destruction the use and abuse of illegal drugs has caused, most of which started with the initial use of marijuana.

“I certainly feel that we will see the impact of legalization in Colorado and Washington state,” he said. “Undoubtedly, these experiments will have a big impact upon what happens in other states and nationally in the next few years to come.”

State Sen. Gary Smith, of Norco, said the issue of potentially legalizing marijuana or reforming current laws merits further study.

“There are certainly negatives to those laws that have been passed in states like Colorado and Washington, but there are some positives to them as well,” he said.

The increase in tax revenue that would come from the legalization of marijuana, as well as the expected reduction in court costs and jail time, would increase funds for the cash-strapped state government.

“The fact is that not only do you derive revenue, but you save revenue, so you are really getting it from two different areas,” Smith said. “You could really change the shape of some local and state (economic) forecasts with it.”

However, Smith said he is troubled by states superseding federal laws that still outlaw the substance, especially if the federal government decides to crack down.

“It is kind of one of those crossroads. The state is saying it is legal, but the federal government is saying it is illegal. You still have a federal prosecutorial system and criminal system set up and I sure would not want us to get crossways as a state and tell our citizens it was alright to do something and then them be punished federally for it,” he said.

For the meantime, Smith said he is interested in seeing how the rollout of the legalized marijuana works in the two states before making any movement in Louisiana.

A recent poll commissioned by the ACLU found that 53 percent of Louisiana voters are behind legalization efforts and that an even higher percentage think only a $100 fine should be assessed to those convicted of marijuana possession, which is a large contrast with current state law.

Louisiana currently has some of the harshest penalties for marijuana possession in the country, with sentences of 20 years in jail for those found guilty of a third offense of marijuana possession.

Esman said before the state can even think about possible legalization, criminal reform should occur first.

“People are getting extremely long sentences for something that is a relatively minor infraction. When the penalty for a drive-by shooting in Louisiana is five years, there is no reason for somebody to be doing 20 years for marijuana possession,” she said.

Champagne disagrees with the assertion that the state’s jails are full of non-violent marijuana offenders who were caught with a single cigarette.

“This is simply not true. Almost all individuals arrested for marijuana are charged with other offenses as well,” he said.

Last year, a bill that would have greatly reduced sentences for habitual marijuana offenders passed the Louisiana House of Representatives, but was not called up for a vote in the Senate before the session ended.

Esman believes that similar legislation will be introduced in this year’s session.

“What I think makes more sense is limiting the penalties. We are going to come back with another bill, maybe more than one, to reduce penalties for marijuana possession,” she said.

In the meantime, efforts are underway at studying the expansion of access to medical marijuana in Louisiana.

Medical marijuana was already legalized in Louisiana in 1991 for a handful of illnesses, including for those undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer.  However, the Department of Health and Hospitals never set up a way to legally dispense marijuana to those who are eligible to receive it.

Esman said despite community support as evidenced by the ACLU’s poll, any change in Louisiana’s marijuana laws will likely come about slowly.

“In the end, this is Louisiana and we are a conservative state. That is a political reality and it doesn’t make sense to pretend otherwise,” she said.

Still, Smith said the issue of marijuana reform deserves attention.

“It really is a topic we are certainly going to have to address in the next few years,” he said.

State lawmakers look at pros, cons of legalizing marijuana