New Orleans' new pot possession ordinance passes; no jail time, instead fines now

Police in New Orleans will soon have the option of handing out fines, rather than potential jail sentences, to those caught smoking a joint in the city.

The City Council on Thursday unanimously passed an ordinance establishing a series of fines ranging from $40 to $100 for simple marijuana possession. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office promised he will allow the measure to become law.

While the ordinance would make the crime a minor municipal infraction, there are significant unanswered questions about how it will play out in practice.

Police would still be able to arrest anyone caught with pot under more punitive state laws, which allow for jail time, and as of yet, there are no policies in place for how either the New Orleans Police Department or other law enforcement agencies operating in the city will determine which laws to choose to enforce.

The softer penalties, first proposed by Councilwoman Susan Guidry, have been touted as a way to prevent users from potentially winding up with long jail terms and felonies on their record after repeated arrests for pot possession.

The change also would allow the NOPD to focus its attention on more serious issues, such as violent crime and would have at least a small effect on the city’s jail population, Guidry said.

“Our hope is fewer people will be brought to jail and fewer people will have their lives disrupted,” she said.

When Landrieu’s office said Thursday that the mayor would not veto the ordinance, it was the first time the administration or NOPD has weighed in on the issue.

“Public safety is our top priority,” Landrieu spokesman Hayne Rainey said in an email. “Right now, we are hiring and training a larger, more professional police force that will give us the tools required to reduce violent crime, reduce response times and provide our residents and visitors with the security we all deserve. The ordinance will become law.”

Under the ordinance, possession would remain a misdemeanor under city law and those caught with pot would be issued a summons to Municipal Court. The first conviction would come with a $40 fine, which would be increased by $20 for every subsequent conviction before topping out at $100 for a fourth offense.

Police would confiscate the drugs, and those fines would show up on some kinds of background checks, city officials said.

If someone goes two years without being convicted of a marijuana-related offense, the fines would reset, meaning they would start over at $40.

Exactly how much marijuana would count as “possession,” rather than “possession with intent to distribute” — which is not covered by the city ordinance — is not clear. State law considers possessing less than 2.5 pounds of marijuana a misdemeanor, though specific circumstances can determine whether someone who has large amounts of the drug is considered to be in possession or attempting to distribute it.

The ordinance that was passed Thursday is stricter than Guidry’s original proposal, which called for issuing two warnings before any fines were assessed. That plan proved unworkable, however, because officials said the NOPD does not have a database in place that would allow for such warnings to be tracked. The warnings also would not have made it to court, so someone accused of possession would have had no way to contest the claim.

An arrest typically takes up about six hours of an officer’s time, while a summons would be a much quicker process that could free up police resources, Guidry and others argued.

“We shouldn’t be hunting rabbits while lions and tigers are running around in the streets,” Councilman James Gray said, referencing a sentiment he and defense lawyer Gary Wainwright, who spoke in favor of the ordinance Thursday, used during their unsuccessful campaigns for district attorney in 2002.

While the changes were cheered by advocates of marijuana reform at Thursday’s council meeting, the fact that two sets of laws will now govern possession in New Orleans raised concerns that police could decide to apply the harsher state law against some offenders based on race or other factors.

“When dealing with this piece of legislation, you’ve got to think about our city’s history as it deals with the racial disparities that existed in the past and I’m concerned still exist today,” Councilman Jared Brossett said.

Guidry said that fear had not been borne out after a previous easing of marijuana policy in New Orleans, a 2010 ordinance that allowed officers to give summonses requiring offenders to show up in court rather than making arrests. The rates at which arrests decreased over the last five years were similar for white and black offenders, Guidry said.

The NOPD will develop policies to guide officers on how to enforce the two sets of laws, Rainey said. But it is not clear how other police agencies in the city will react.

Capt. Doug Cain, a spokesman for the State Police, said troopers in charge of the detail now patrolling the French Quarter will meet with the District Attorney’s Office, which opposed Guidry’s measure, and city officials before determining how to proceed.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.

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