BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – In a demonstration of the changing opinions about marijuana use, Louisiana lawmakers have agreed that people caught with small amounts of pot for recreational use should not go to jail, voting Monday to send the bill lessening the penalties to the governor’s desk.
The Senate’s 20-17 vote gave final passage to the proposal by Rep. Cedric Glover, a Shreveport Democrat, with the exact number of votes it needed to pass the chamber. The House already had backed the bill in a 68-25 vote. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has not taken a public position on the bill.
Glover’s legislation would make possession of up to 14 grams of marijuana – a half-ounce – a misdemeanor carrying a fine up to $100 with no possibility of jail time, even for repeat offenses.
Supporters say the change would keep the criminal justice system from being burdened with people arrested for minor offenses and will give police the ability to focus on violent crime. Some municipalities around Louisiana already have switched to fines, rather than arrests for possession of small amounts of cannabis.
Sen. Jay Luneau, an Alexandria Democrat, said the state spends millions of dollars a year jailing people unnecessarily for minor offenses.
“This is a common sense approach,” he said of Glover’s bill.
Opponents say frequent use of marijuana can damage the brain, and they argue the drug is a gateway to substance abuse issues.
“This is just a walk down to decriminalizing any form of punishment for possessing” other drugs, said Sen. Bodi White, a Central Republican.
After years where similar ideas stalled, this session’s debate shows just how much opposition to marijuana has eased – particularly among younger, newer legislators. This year’s proposal passed with bipartisan support.
It comes only six years after lawmakers created a framework for dispensing medical marijuana, a program the majority-Republican Legislature has expanded nearly every year since then. This session, lawmakers agreed to broaden the therapeutic cannabis program to allow patients to use raw, smokable marijuana, an idea considered unthinkable when the medical program was created.
But even as lawmakers voted to lessen the penalties for possession of recreational marijuana, they refused to legalize it outright, suggesting that was still a bridge too far. That legalization effort failed in the House earlier this session.
The bill is filed as House Bill 652.
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