Louisiana decriminalizes small amounts of cannabis!
Last update: June 17, 2021
On June 14, 2021, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed Rep. Cedric Glover’s decriminalization bill — HB 652 — into law!
This new law will save thousands of Louisianans from being incarcerated for small amounts of cannabis. Starting on August 1, the penalty for possessing up to 14 grams of cannabis will be reduced to a fine of up to $100. For those unable to pay, the court shall use its discretion for alternatives, such as community service or installment payments.
Louisiana was the incarceration capital of the United States until recently. While the legislature reduced several penalties over the years, many continued to be jaw-droppingly harsh and tear families apart. Until HB 652 takes effect, a first offense for possessing up to 14 grams carries up to 15 days in jail. The penalty increases for additional convictions, and a fourth or subsequent simple possession offense carries up to eight years in jail. (That staggering penalty remains for fourth offense possession of over 14 grams!)
We are grateful to everyone who has worked so hard for humane cannabis policies in Louisiana, including Louisiana Progress — which led the charge on legalization and decriminalization advocacy this year; Kevin Caldwell and Common Sense NOLA, whose trailblazing local decriminalization efforts laid the foundation for statewide reform; and Sensible Marijuana Policy for Louisiana, who have been key to medical cannabis progress and broader reform over the years.
Legislature seriously considers legalization
While decriminalization will prevent a great amount of trauma, it does nothing to address the harms of pushing cannabis sales underground. Louisiana’s legislature has also begun to seriously examine full legalization.
For the first time ever, the Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice advanced two legalization bills, though neither passed the floor. Rep. Richard Nelson (R-Mandeville) sponsored HB 699 (formerly HB 524), which would have legalized and regulated cannabis for adults 21 and older and included no cap on the number of businesses. Meanwhile, Rep. Candace Newell's (D) legalization bills — HB 243 and HB 637 —would have put equity and inclusion at the forefront of legalization but included low limits on the number of cannabis businesses. Our summary is available here.
While neither legalization bill passed, the House did pass a study resolution — Rep. Marcus Bryant’s HR 1. Between now and when the legislature reconvenes in 2022, the Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice will consider “the impact of legalizing the possession and use of cannabis.” The resolution requires the committee to consider a number of areas of inquiry, including “evaluating best practices for potential tax structure, rates, and economic impacts on potential legal framework and illicit markets.”
Medical cannabis program improving; bill to legalize raw, flower cannabis on governor’s desk
Louisiana’s medical cannabis program started as perhaps the most restrictive in the nation, leaving behind most patients and modes of administration. The legislature has made significant improvements, but the law still has problematic limitations.
Louisiana has only two state-licensed cultivators — Louisiana State University and Southern University — and the state has authorized only nine locationsto dispense medical marijuana.
Louisiana also restricts the forms of cannabis allowed — prohibiting whole-plant (flower) and smoking. Banning flower drives up costs, making medical cannabis inaccessible to most low-income and middle-income patients, and can result in cannabis businesses not being economically viable. The legislature has approved HB 391, a bill that would allow flower, and it is now on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk.
You can ask him to sign this sensible, compassionate bill into law here.
Louisiana’s list of qualifying conditions also began as unduly restrictive. In 2020, however, the legislature passed and Gov. John Bel Edwards signed HB 819, which allows doctors to recommend medical cannabis for any medical condition the physician “considers debilitating to an individual patient” that the physician is qualified to treat. It also added several qualifying conditions, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, traumatic brain injury, and chronic pain associated with sickle cell anemia or fibromyalgia.
HB 819 was sponsored by Rep. Larry Bagley (R), who had been opposed to medical cannabis until he heard from constituents who found it relieved their pain. Now, he has become a champion.
His turnaround shows the dramatic impact constituent stories can have on their lawmakers. Considering reaching out to your state legislators about other marijuana policy reforms you care about.
Medical cannabis access a "game changer" in Gov. Blanco's final days
After years of waiting, Louisiana medical marijuana sales finally started on August 6, 2019. Less than a month later, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s eldest child shared that medical marijuana was a “game changer” for Blanco. Blanco was near death when medical marijuana access became legal. Marijuana allowed Blanco to regain the ability to eat and hold conversations, allowing her to survive nearly two more weeks — long enough to celebrate her 55th wedding anniversary.
Louisiana provides for safe access during the coronavirus
Louisiana relaxed some rules and regulations in times of coronavirus to allow safe access to medical cannabis in a manner consistent with social distancing. Pharmacies can now deliver medical cannabis to patients at home — or wherever else they are. (That change is permanent, not just during COVID.) And existing patients can get medical cannabis recommendations renewed via telemedicine.
Polling shows Louisiana voters support legalization
The people of Louisiana are ready to rid their state of the overly harsh penalties currently imposed for marijuana offenses. A March 2021 poll found 67% of Louisianans support legalizing cannabis. Only 24% said using or possessing marijuana should be illegal.
Louisiana’s largest city has listened to voters: In 2016, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to decriminalize marijuana possession in the city. Encouragingly, officers are by and large abiding by the ordinance (rather than arresting under state law), and statistics show plummeting arrests. For more details, please click here.
Despite this positive step, marijuana arrests remain rampant in the rest of the state, and racial disparities are alarming.A 2020 study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that although blacks and whites use marijuana at nearly identical rates, Black people in Louisiana are 3.4 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession.