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The Louisiana legislature is considering two bills that would legalize recreational marijuana use in Louisiana.
House Bills 524 and 243 (sponsored by Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, and Candace Newell, D-New Orleans, respectively) were favorably reported to the full House by the House Criminal Justice Committee on April 27. The House has already passed a bill which adds smokable marijuana to the state’s medical marijuana program.
If passed, House Bill 524 would decriminalize marijuana across the state. The bill also stipulates that the growth and sale of marijuana would be allowed only in parishes that approve it. Nelson has filed another bill (HB 434) that would split the revenue generated by marijuana sales between local and state governments with 20% dedicated to law enforcement. If passed, the measure is expected to bring in a half a billion dollars over the next five years.
Citing popular support for legalization, Nelson said, “We’ve basically relied on prohibition for the last 70 years, and I think that now it’s time that we reevaluate where we are.” Recent polls indicate widespread popular support for the measure. JMC Analytics, a Baton Rouge firm, recently asked 1,160 voters if they favored legalization. More than two-thirds, 67%, said “Yes”.
Despite widespread public support and bipartisan support in the legislature, the bills are facing stern opposition from law enforcement, especially sheriffs and district attorneys. Michael Ranatza, Executive Director of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, testified before the House committee, saying “I would ask that you tap your brakes and study this matter.” Citing no evidence, other opponents claimed legalization would lead to an increase in teen suicides and more organized crime.
Governor Edwards, who has opposed recreational use in the past, softened his position recently, stating “As I almost always do, I will take a look at the bill as it arrives on my desk and see what it contains and what amendments have been added to it. I’m not going to speculate now on that, but I do have great interest in that bill and what it says, especially if it does make it up to the fourth floor. I’ll take a look at it at that point and then make sure that you all know exactly how I feel about it.”
The benefits of legalizing recreational marijuana use are many. As the experience of other states has clearly shown, legalization creates an economic boom in terms of job creation as well as tax revenue. Illinois, for example, took in more money from marijuana sales than alcohol sales in the first quarter of 2021. In Colorado, marijuana sales in February alone reached $167 million. Legalizing marijuana is a no-brainer for any state that has chronic budget shortfalls.
In addition to increased revenue for the state, legalizing recreational use lessens the pressure on law enforcement and puts a dent in the obscene Criminal Justice Industry. According to a study published last year in The Blue Review, “in 2018 American tax-payers spent anywhere from $600 million to $3 billion solely on arresting and keeping marijuana users incarcerated.” Many of those incarcerated are in private for-profit prisons. Legalization of marijuana is a necessary step toward ending the failed “war on drugs.”
Prohibition of marijuana specifically and, the so-called “war on drugs” generally, are rooted in white supremacy. Legalization, therefore, is also essential in dismantling systemic racism. According to the ACLU, “Blacks were on average over six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possessions than whites.”
And recent studies have shown that legalization may help ameliorate the opioid crisis. A study published last month in the British Medical Association Journal states, “Higher medical and recreational storefront dispensary counts are associated with reduced opioid related death rates, particularly deaths associated with synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.” This study is just the latest in a number of studies that came to the same conclusion. If passed, Louisiana would become the 16th state to legalize marijuana for recreational use.