New Orleans may loosen penalties for marijuana possession

Smoking a joint in New Orleans could be treated like a minor traffic infraction if an ordinance drawn up by City Councilwoman Susan Guidry becomes law.

The proposed change builds on Guidry’s previous effort to have police de-emphasize arrests for possession of marijuana. An ordinance passed in 2010 allowed officers to issue summonses rather than arrest those with small amounts of the drug.

Her office credits that shift with a 50 percent reduction in marijuana arrests in the city. Those arrests would otherwise be contributing to what Guidry and other city officials argue is excessive incarceration under laws that are disproportionately enforced against residents who are black or poor.

Guidry plans to introduce further changes this week, with a first discussion at a Wednesday hearing of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, which she chairs.

It is unclear whether any other council members will support her move.

Under her new proposal, officers would have the option of issuing verbal and written warnings before any penalties kick in. Subsequent offenses would be dealt with through fines that would be capped at $100.

The proposal was sparked by changes in state law last year that give local governments more control over how to handle marijuana cases. And it’s aimed in part at making sure the NOPD and the local jail aren’t overburdened with enforcing penalties against what is increasingly seen as a minor offense.

“I think there is a sense among the majority of people that marijuana offenses should not be harshly punished,” Guidry said.

Under the proposed ordinance, officers would be directed to give a verbal warning the first time someone is caught with the drug. A written warning would follow for second offenses.

A third-time offender would face a $50 fine, and all subsequent offenses would be punished with a $100 fine.

Officers would still be able to make arrests under the more punitive state law instead of the municipal code, something Guidry suggested could be used in cases where a known drug dealer is caught with only a small amount of marijuana on him. State law allows for a fine of up to $500 and up to six months in jail for a first offense when an offender has more than 14 grams of marijuana and up to eight years in prison for a fourth offense.

If the ordinance is passed by the council and signed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, officers would be able to choose whether to use the city ordinance or the state law when deciding how to deal with suspects found in possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Because nothing the city does can override state law, officers would always be able to choose which one to use in any given case. Guidry said having the two sets of laws would allow officers to continue to make arrests if they feel the situation warrants it.

Many cities have loosened their policies toward marijuana use. Last year, both Miami-Dade County in Florida and Milwaukee passed ordinances that provide for dealing with marijuana possession through fines despite stricter laws on the state level. Some cities, such as Ann Arbor, Michigan, have had similar policies in place for decades, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“Local politicians recognize that public sentiment has changed dramatically on this issue at the same time there seems to be total recalcitrance among state lawmakers to even deal with this issue,” said Paul Armentano, the organization’s deputy director.

Still, giving officers the ability to decide which law to enforce has raised concerns.

Former state Rep. Austin Badon, who succeeded last year in passing legislation reducing penalties for some marijuana possession offenses at the state level, said the decision on how to charge someone should be left to the District Attorney’s Office or judges, not to cops making case-by-case decisions.

“These police officers are law enforcement. They’re not law makers; they’re not the judicial branch,” Badon said. “I would be leery about allowing individual officers to do that.”

If the ordinance passes, the way the NOPD instructs officers to handle marijuana cases would have a significant impact on the law’s effects. Officials with Landrieu’s office and the NOPD did not respond to requests for comment on the ordinance Monday.

Another potential variable is which law State Police, now on a long-term deployment in the French Quarter, would use. Spokesman Capt. Doug Cain said the agency would have discussions with city leadership to determine how to move forward if the ordinance is enacted.

Guidry said she hopes the administration will support the ordinance and that it would be enforced fairly, citing studies by her office showing that summonses, rather than arrests, for marijuana possession are occurring at the same rate for white and black offenders.

De-emphasizing marijuana arrests has meant police can focus on more important issues, she said.

“Police basically got the message that this was not something the lawmakers felt they needed to put significant resources to,” Guidry said.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.

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