NEW ORLEANS – Louisiana has some of the strongest penalties in the south for simple marijuana possession. Across the state, hundreds are behind bars for simple marijuana possession, with an average sentence of more than eight years.
State Rep. Austin Badon is among those trying to reduce sentences for repeat offenses involving simple possession of marijuana.
But Thursday, he tabled a bill that would have done just that, after the Louisiana Sheriff's Association came out against it during a House Administration of Justice Committee hearing.
“I was totally lied to, back stabbed,” said Badon, D-New Orleans.
Badon said the association helped him draft identical legislation a year ago. That bill passed several committees and never made it to the Senate floor.
Badon said there was never an indication the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association’s thoughts on the legislation had changed.
“He went to the table and he opposed a bill that he was part of the negotiations for. It made no sense,” said Badon, referring to Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association.
“He told myself and other legislators they were going to remain neutral, but they were going to back my bill and not any other bill.”
Ranatza said he never spoke with Badon about the bill in question.
"Our membership has voted to oppose any effort that would lessen the penalty toward marijuana offenses, or any bill that would act to decriminalize or legalize marijuana. We have consistently held it's a gateway drug, which leads to further criminal activity," Ranatza said in a statement.
The vote happened at a Louisiana Sheriff’s Association meeting in February.
“He's seen me virtually every day since the legislative session started March 10,” said Badon. “If his membership took a vote, he could have called me. Everybody has my cell.”
Badon’s bill would have maintained the present law for a first conviction, for which an offender can be fined up to $500 and sentenced to up to six months in prison.
His bill would have changed penalties for two or more convictions.
Under current law, a second conviction for possession of marijuana can carry up to $2,000 in fines and five years in prison. Three or more convictions carry a sentence of up to 20 years, with fines of up to $5,000. Habitual offenders can face increased penalties.
Badon’s bill would limit penalties for a second conviction to up to two years in prison and up to $500 in in fines. A third conviction would carry up to five years in prison and up to $2,000 in fines. Four or more convictions would carry up to eight years in prison, and up to $2,000 in fines.
Marjorie Esman heads the ACLU of Louisiana. She believes Badon's bill doesn't go far enough because repeat marijuana convictions would still be considered felonies.
“If we want to reduce crime, the way to do that is not to tag people with felony convictions when they haven't done anything harmful,” said Esman.
Since the bill received opposition from both sides, with some saying it went too far, and others who believed it didn’t go far enough in reducing penalties, the committee appeared torn on how to vote before Badon took decided to defer the bill, said Esman.
And supporters of the effort to reduce sentences for repeat marijuana offenders said if that effort goes through, it could ease populations at parish prisons.
“We would save approximately $2.5 million,” said Badon.
Badon says this may not be the end of his efforts. He'll consider bringing the bill up again later in the session.
There are still nearly half a dozen other bills on the table aimed at reducing sentences for marijuana convictions, most of which go even further than Badon’s.
Two other bills aim to legalize medicinal marijuana.