Lawmakers Vote To Lessen Louisiana's Marijuana Penalties

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Lawmakers have agreed to lower Louisiana's tough penalties for marijuana possession, ending the possibility someone could be jailed 20 years for repeatedly getting caught with small amounts of the drug.

         With a 74-19 vote Monday, the House gave final passage to the proposal by Rep. Austin Badon, a New Orleans Democrat. The Senate already had approved the bill in a 24-13 vote. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has said he supports the changes and will sign them into law.

         "We've said all along we are fine with the idea of providing rehabilitation and treatment for nonviolent drug offenders. I think that this bill does that, and I think that's good for those offenders. I think it's good for taxpayers," the governor said recently.

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         The final version of the bill was crafted by Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, who worked with the sheriffs association and the district attorneys association on the law changes. While neither group backed the bill, they also didn't object, easing the path to passage.

         Currently, a person caught with marijuana faces a misdemeanor sentence of up to six months in jail. A second offense is a felony carrying a sentence of up to eight years in prison, and someone convicted for a third offense can be locked up for 20 years.

         Critics say Louisiana locks up too many people for a minor offense costing the state millions in prison costs.

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         Under Badon's bill, someone caught with less than 14 grams of marijuana will face up to 15 days in jail and up to six months if caught with less than 2.5 pounds but more than 14 grams. A second offense conviction will drop to a misdemeanor with a sentence of no more than six months.

         If someone gets caught on a second offense — and it's been more than two years since the first conviction — that again will be treated like a first offense. A repeat offender could only tap into that so-called "cleansing period" once.

         "This is a compassionate, just and smart approach to sentencing reform," Badon said.

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         By conviction on a third offense of marijuana possession, a felony charge will kick in, carrying a smaller penalty than in current law, however, of up to two years in prison. The maximum penalty on later offenses will drop from 20 years in prison to eight years.

         As a point of compromise with law enforcement, the bill will create a new felony possession charge carrying a minimum sentence of two years in prison and a maximum of up to 10 years for anyone caught with more than 2.5 pounds and less than 60 pounds of marijuana. For 60 pounds or more, other laws cover the crime.

         "This does it very, very smartly," said Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, chairman of the House criminal justice committee. "We're decreasing some of the penalties on the smaller amounts."

         The sentencing changes take effect as soon as the governor signs the bill.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte

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