Louisiana lawmakers 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 a law ending prison sentences for convictions for possession of low-intensity cannabis. The measure, House Bill 700, was introduced in the Louisiana House of Representatives by Republican state Rep. Larry Bagley on March 4 and approved by a legislative committee last week.
Last year, the Louisiana legislature passed Bill 652, a bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis. The bill was passed in June and came into force in August, ending the possibility of a prison sentence for possession of less than 14 grams of weed. The legislation has been welcomed by cannabis reform advocates, including Peter Robins-Brown, director of policy and advocacy at Louisiana Progress, a partnership between the Coalition for Louisiana Progress and the Louisiana Progress Action Fund.
“The decriminalization of marijuana will truly make a difference in the lives of people in our state,” Robins-Brown noted after the passage of the decriminalization bill last year. “This is an important first step in modernizing marijuana policy in Louisiana, and it’s another important step in the ongoing effort to solve our incarceration crisis, which has trapped so many in a cycle of poverty and prison. Now is the time to make sure everyone knows their rights under this new law and that law enforcement officers understand how to apply it correctly.
But now some of that progress is threatened by Bagley’s bill, which would put prison sentences back on the table for minors caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis. The legislation would amend Louisiana’s decriminalization bill to resurrect jail time as a possible sentence for youth possession of weed, but would not affect sentences for adults convicted of the same offense.
Hard work for half a lid
Under HB 700, people under the age of 18 caught with less than 14 grams of cannabis can be released on probation or “imprisoned for a maximum of fifteen days” on the first conviction, according to the text of the law. For cases involving amounts of cannabis greater than 14 grams, a first conviction can put a child behind bars for up to six months.
Penalties become more severe with subsequent convictions. A minor’s second conviction for possession of up to 14 grams of cannabis can lead to six months in prison. A third and fourth conviction puts the children in jail for two and four years, respectively, “with or without hard labor”, for possession of less than half an ounce of weed.
Bagley said HB 700 is needed because schools across the state are struggling to keep cannabis off school grounds, according to Louisiana Highlighter. He said prosecutors had no way of forcing children into drug treatment programs without the threat of incarceration and that judges were unlikely to incarcerate a minor for possession of small amounts of pot.
“It was presented as if this bill was about trying to put people in jail. It’s not,” Bagley said.
But Robins-Brown, who is now the executive director of Louisiana Progress, said school disciplinary action, including suspension, expulsion or exclusion from athletics and other activities, is a more appropriate way. to solve the problem.
“We don’t think we should criminalize young people any harder than adults,” Robins-Brown said.
Megan Garvey of the Louisiana Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers noted that there are other options for coercing minors into drug treatment. Under state law, family court judges can order parents or guardians to place their children in treatment programs.
But the bill is receiving bipartisan support from lawmakers. State Rep. Nicholas Muscarello voted in favor of HB 700 in committee despite his general support for laws relaxing cannabis prohibition.
“We are trying to rehabilitate the children. This allows our courts to control them and put them in drug courts,” Muscarello said. “No judge puts a child in jail for six months for marijuana.”
Although he also voted for the bill in committee, Republican State Rep. Danny McCormick voiced concerns about HB 700 taking over jail sentences for kids caught with weed . He wondered why the penalties were harsher 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 possession of alcohol, while minors possessing cigarettes may be fined $50.
“Alcohol, in my opinion, would be much 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 cannabis products. regulated. On Monday, the bill was scheduled for floor debate by the entire Louisiana House of Representatives to be held on April 5.
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