Feb 26, 2014 11:04 AM by Alex Labat and Tina Macias
It's a controversial topic with a growing interest in the state.
Marijuana has been legalized in 20 states and the District of Columbia for medicinal purposes, and of those states, Washington and Colorado have also made it legal for recreational use.
Now, recent house committee hearing about cannabis and subsequent comments from a powerful Louisiana figure has sparked a statewide conversation about weed.
And if some legislators have their way, harsh punishments for possessing marijuana could go up in smoke.
"We are destroying too many lives for tiny little bits of marijuana, that the last three presidents have admitted smoking," State Sen. Elbert Guillory, R-Opelousas, said.
Guillory, who's in his second term as a Louisiana senator, is one of a number of legislators who say the incarceration rate for people caught with marijuana is far too high in the state, and is looking to change that with House Bill 14.
"Once you get a conviction or two, your life is pretty much over with respect to access to universities and access to good jobs," Guillory said.
Currently, the law states that on a first offense, a person can be fined up to $500 and/or spend up to six months in jail.
Repeat convictions are felonies and serious jail time.
For instance, getting caught with marijuana three times could land a person in jail up to 20 years.
House Bill 14 aims to reduce the penalties for those with subsequent charges and looks to do away with application of the habitual offender law when it comes to marijuana.
That "three strikes" law comes with a life sentence after three felony convictions. Ten Louisianans with felony marijuana convictions are currently spending life in prison under that law.
The proposed changes under HB 14 from current law as follows:
• It reduces a second offense from a $250 to $2,000 fine and/or up to five years in prison ---to up to a $500 fine and 2 years in prison.
• A third and subsequent offense currently lands you a $5,000 fine and 20 years in prison ---that would change to a maximum $2,000 fine and 5 years in prison.
• And the law creates a maximum punishment for fourth and subsequent offenses---a fine of up to $2,000 and eight years in jail.
Reducing penalties could be just the first step in marijuana reform during a time when legalization could become a reality for other states. We spoke to people who saw both sides of the issue.
"Personally, I'm against it for recreational use. It's not something I participate in," Anna Hansen said.
"The conviction rate for marijuana is really excessive. And there really aren't enough programs to help people," Corey Pate said.
While the people we spoke to seemed split on reform, many in Acadiana are in favor of legalization.
In a recent public policy polling survey of Louisiana voters, 53 percent of Acadiana-area voters said they would policies like that of Colorado and Washington. Of those surveyed, 80 percent consider themselves to be conservative.
And more than half of Acadiana residents surveyed said they're against long prison sentence or life for marijuana convictions.
"Do I see something probably changing? Yeah, I think so. I'm not saying it's good or bad. I'm just saying I think there'll probably be some changes, simply because from the view of things across the country, moods are changing and people are joining coalitions and fighting very hard for it, putting a lot of pressure on the legislators," District Attorney Mike Harson said.
Harson predicts laws concerning marijuana will change, eventually. And if they do, he hopes legislators take into account "why" a person might turn to using marijuana.
He'd prefer offenders get help instead of getting locked up.
"Make it mandatory. Put it in a statute. Make them have to go to treatment. At least take a chance to rehabilitate the person," Harson said. "If they won't take advantage of it, well then down the road then enhance the penalties. I'm not saying necessarily 20 years off the bat, but nonetheless."
A recent report by the ACLU estimated that Louisiana spent more than $46.4 million enforcing marijuana laws back in 2010. They took into account the cost associate with police, the judicial system and prison.
• Police: $20,820,868
• Judicial & Legal: $18,037,214
• Corrections: $7,592,286
Statewide, officers made more than 13,000 arrests for marijuana possession that same year, and marijuana possession rates accounted for 37 percent of all drug arrests in 2010.
Tonight at 6 p.m. in Part 2 of our investigation, Alex Labat will look at how medical marijuana has some legislators seeing green, and others worried about the dangerous side effects of legalization.