Lawmakers in Louisiana are considering a bill that could put minors behind bars for possessing even small amounts of pot, less than a year after the state enacted legislation to end jail time for low-level cannabis possession convictions. The measure, House Bill 700, was introduced in the Louisiana House of Representatives by Republican state Representative Larry Bagley on March 4 and approved by a legislative committee last week.
Last year, the Louisiana legislature passed House Bill 652, a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis. The bill was passed in June and went into effect in August, ending the possibility of jail time for possessing less than 14 grams of weed. The legislation was hailed by cannabis reform advocates including Peter Robins-Brown, policy and advocacy director at Louisiana Progress, a partnership between the Coalition for Louisiana Progress and Louisiana Progress Action Fund.
“Marijuana decriminalization will truly make a difference in the lives of the people of our state,” Robins-Brown said after the decriminalization bill was passed last year. “It’s an important first step in modernizing marijuana policy in Louisiana, and it’s another milestone in the ongoing effort to address our incarceration crisis, which has trapped so many people in a cycle of poverty and prison. Now it’s time to make sure that everyone knows their rights under this new law, and that law enforcement officers understand how to properly implement it.”
But now some of that progress is in jeopardy from Bagley’s bill, which would once again put jail time on the table for minors caught possessing small amounts of cannabis. The legislation would amend Louisiana’s decriminalization bill to resurrect jail time as a possible sentence for weed possession by young people, but would not affect the penalties imposed on adults convicted of the same offense.
Hard Labor for Half a Lid
Under HB 700, people under 18 caught with less than 14 grams of cannabis can be placed on probation or “imprisoned for not more than fifteen days” on the first conviction, according to the text of the legislation. For cases involving amounts of cannabis greater than 14 grams, a first conviction can put a kid behind bars for up to six months.
The penalties become more severe upon subsequent convictions. A minor’s second conviction for possessing up to 14 grams of cannabis can result in six months in jail. A third and fourth conviction subjects children to sentences of two and four years imprisonment, respectively, “with or without hard labor,” for possessing less than a half-ounce of weed.
Bagley has said that HB 700 is needed because schools in the state are having trouble keeping cannabis off of school grounds, according to the Louisiana Illuminator. He said that prosecutors have no way to force children into drug rehabilitation programs without the threat of incarceration and that judges are unlikely to incarcerate a minor for possession of small amounts of pot.
“It was presented like this bill is about trying to put people in prison. It’s not,” Bagley said.
But Robins-Brown, who is now the executive director of Louisiana Progress, said that school disciplinary action including suspension, expulsion or exclusion from athletics and other activities is a more appropriate way to address the problem.
“We don’t think we should be criminalizing youth more harshly than adults,” Robins-Brown said.
Megan Garvey with the Louisiana Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers noted that other options exist to compel minors into drug treatment. Under state law, family court judges can mandate parents or guardians place their children in treatment programs.
But the bill is receiving bipartisan support from lawmakers. State Representative Nicholas Muscarello voted in favor of HB 700 in committee despite generally supporting laws relaxing cannabis prohibition.
“We are trying to rehabilitate children. This allows our courts to kind of keep them in check and put them in drug courts,” said Muscarello. “No judge is putting a kid in jail for six months for marijuana.”
Although he also voted for the bill in committee, Republican state Representative Danny McCormick expressed concerns about HB 700’s revival of jail time for kids caught with weed. He questioned why the penalties were more severe than laws prohibiting possession of alcohol or tobacco by young people. Under Louisiana law, people under 21 can be fined up to $100 and lose their driver’s license for up to six months for possessing alcohol, while minors possessing cigarettes can be fined $50.
“Alcohol, in my opinion, would be greatly more harmful than marijuana,” McCormick said.
Last week, the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice approved HB 700 after amending the measure to include exceptions for minors who are registered medical cannabis patients possessing regulated cannabis products. On Monday, the bill was scheduled for a floor debate by the full Lousiana House of Representatives to be held on April 5.