Louisiana: Here’s How Opposing Sides Finally Agreed On Marijuana Legislation

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Two bills aimed at softening the state’s penalties on marijuana that died last year have been resuscitated with the help of an unlikely partner: The Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.

As many lawmakers have found out over the years, it can be nearly impossible to convince other legislators to support bills that are opposed by Louisiana Sheriffs. The influential organization’s members packed a committee hearing on a bill last year seeking to reduce the state’s tough marijuana penalties, and the committee moved swiftly to kill it shortly after.

Fast-forward to this year’s legislative session, and the Sheriffs’ Association isn’t opposing any of the three major marijuana bills moving through the Capitol. The marijuana penalties bill that died in committee last year, authored by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, has made it the furthest, winning Senate approval on Monday.

How one of the state’s most powerful law enforcement organizations could turnabout so quickly on legislation involving a Schedule I narcotic is a story of persistence, personal lobbying and some key behind-the-scenes work by Morrell. It’s also the result of some fallout from the public’s reaction to the Sheriffs’ Association’s past opposition.

After they opposed last year’s bill, Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association members were left feeling portrayed as supporters of lengthy sentences unmatched in other Southern states. The perception was driven by a criticism that Sheriffs opposed the bill because they benefit financially by collecting a per diem for each prisoner locked up.

“We thought the criticism was unfounded, and we were sensitive that someone would even consider that would be a factor to us,” said Michael Ranatza, the Sheriffs’ Association’s executive director. “It’s never been the case, and as I stated, we lose money by confining an individual in our jails and prisons.”

Besides, Ranatza pointed out, it’s relatively rare for marijuana convictions to draw a anything close to the 20-year prison term allowed under state law for repeat offenders. The real focus of the negotiations surrounding reforming marijuana penalties, Ranatza said, was giving offenders an opportunity to avoid a felony conviction that could stain a person’s record for a lifetime.

Morrell’s bill (SB 241) would reduce a second-time offender’s charges from felony status to misdemeanor, and it contains a key second-chance provision that allows a first-time marijuana conviction to be expunged if the person keeps their nose clean for two years. A similar bill (HB 149) in the state House of Representatives introduced by Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, was later amended to contain the same reforms.

The Sheriffs’ Association has also agreed not to oppose medical marijuana legislation proposed by state Sen. Fred Mills (SB 143). The association was against it last year.

Even though there’s only a small number of marijuana offenders serving long sentences, the potential for felony convictions and the state’s high incarceration rates figured heavily into discussions, Morrell said. Also, after last year’s bill, Sheriffs began realizing they weren’t housing many prisoners who were locked up on simple possession charges.

“They were saying, ‘We don’t feel like we’re doing this,'” Morell said. “In this conversation with me and other groups, they were saying, ‘If we’re not doing this, then why are we opposed to it?'”

Another unusual development since Morrell’s legislation failed last year was an outreach effort by the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana’s executive director, Marjorie R. Esman. It’s unusual for the ACLU and the Sheriffs’ Association to agree on legislation, but Esman said that didn’t stop her from laying plans to travel the state and appeal to Sheriffs personally.

“We all know that marijuana laws are changing around us rapidly, and we all know something’s going to happen,” whether it’s a separate push for state legalization or a change in federal law, Esman said. “I think there was a concern that if we didn’t agree on something now, half of us would end up with something we didn’t like.”

In those conversations, Esman said, Sheriffs told her that they were less concerned about recreational marijuana use and were more focused on distribution. That’s why Morrell’s bill contains provisions identifying an amount of marijuana classified as simple possession, allowing people caught with larger amounts to be prosecuted with tougher sentences.

“They care about distribution, and still being able to use marijuana as a plea bargaining tool for someone who’s accused of another offense,” Esman said. “They pretty much all said we don’t care about the stoners. We don’t care about the users who go home and get high on a Friday.”

Ranatza disputed the idea that members of the Sheriffs’ Association were moved to act by shifting public attitudes about marijuana or other moves to decriminalize or legalize marijuana across the country.

“The driving point for us had to do with a more practical approach that was geared toward public safety and policy,” Ranatza said. Asked whether recreational use figured into the Sheriffs’ Association’s discussions on marijuana penalties, Rantaza said, “that viewpoint was never discussed.”

Even so, Ranatza acknowledged that shifting his association’s position from opposed to “not opposed” — the association often notes its position is neutral rather than supportive — is a big change from last year.

“We try to improve each year,” Ranatza said. “Certainly on simple possession, we thought by reducing the penalties and wanting to assist an individual who wanted to go to medical school or pharmacy school or law school (but couldn’t due to a marijuana conviction), it was just more of a reasonable approach to giving people the opportunity to do better.”

The key for Morrell, who did much of the work bringing both sides together, was explaining that his bill was not an attempt to whittle away at the law. Before this year, the Sheriffs’ Association and the Louisiana District Attorneys Association had become “entrenched” in a battle to fend off any attempts to legalize or decriminalize marijuana possession.

“It was almost like they were World War I entrenched in opposition because they saw this as all a a path to legalization,” Morrell said. “Once you got them out of the trench and say you’re not talking about legalization, that we need to help people re-enter society, or we need to get more treatment. I think that argument ultimately swayed them.”

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