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Louisiana Mulls Locking Up Kids For Weed Again

Louisiana lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would put minors in prison for possession of even small quantities of marijuana. This bill is being considered less than one year after Louisiana passed legislation ending the time spent in jail for cannabis possession charges. House Bill 700, a measure introduced by Larry Bagley, a Republican state representative, in Louisiana’s House of Representatives, was approved by a legislative commission last week.

House Bill 652, which decriminalizes small quantities of marijuana, was passed by the Louisiana legislature last year. This bill, which was approved in June and put into effect August, ended the risk of being sentenced for possession of less than 14g of cannabis. Supporters of cannabis reform including Peter Robins Brown (policy and advocacy director for Louisiana Progress Action Fund) hailed this legislation.

“Marijuana decriminalization will truly make a difference in the lives of the people of our state,” Robins-Brown said after the decriminalization bill was passed last year. “It’s an important first step in modernizing marijuana policy in Louisiana, and it’s another milestone in the ongoing effort to address our incarceration crisis, which has trapped so many people in a cycle of poverty and prison. Now it’s time to make sure that everyone knows their rights under this new law, and that law enforcement officers understand how to properly implement it.”

But now some of that progress is in jeopardy from Bagley’s bill, which would once again put jail time on the table for minors caught possessing small amounts of cannabis. The legislation would amend Louisiana’s decriminalization bill to resurrect jail time as a possible sentence for weed possession by young people, but would not affect the penalties imposed on adults convicted of the same offense.

A Half-Lid of Hard Labor

Under HB 700, people under 18 caught with less than 14 grams of cannabis can be placed on probation or “imprisoned for not more than fifteen days” on the first conviction, according to the text of the legislation. If the case involves more than 14 grams of cannabis, a juvenile can be sentenced to up to six months in prison.

Upon subsequent convictions, the penalties are more severe. A minor’s second conviction for possessing up to 14 grams of cannabis can result in six months in jail. A third and fourth conviction subjects children to sentences of two and four years imprisonment, respectively, “with or without hard labor,” for possessing less than a half-ounce of weed.

Bagley said that HB700 is necessary because many schools are struggling to keep cannabis out of schools. According to Bagley, Louisiana Illuminator. According to him, prosecutors do not have the ability to forcibly enroll children in drug rehab programs. Judges are likely to imprison a minor for possessing small quantities of marijuana.

“It was presented like this bill is about trying to put people in prison. It’s not,” Bagley said.

Robins Brown, now executive director at Louisiana Progress, stated that school discipline action, including suspension, expulsion, or exclusion, is the best way to deal with the issue.

“We don’t think we should be criminalizing youth more harshly than adults,” Robins-Brown said.

Megan Garvey from the Louisiana Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers stated that minors can be forced into treatment by other means. State law allows family court judges to direct parents and guardians to enroll their minor children into treatment programs.

However, the bill has bipartisan support. Nicholas Muscarello from the State of New York voted for House Bill 700 in Committee despite being generally supportive laws that allow cannabis prohibition to be relaxed.

“We are trying to rehabilitate children. This allows our courts to kind of keep them in check and put them in drug courts,” said Muscarello. “No judge is putting a kid in jail for six months for marijuana.”

Although he also voted for the bill in committee, Republican state Representative Danny McCormick expressed concerns about HB 700’s revival of jail time for kids caught with weed. He wondered why penalties for young adults consuming alcohol and tobacco were so severe. Under Louisiana law, people under 21 can be fined up to $100 and lose their driver’s license for up to six months for possessing alcohol, while minors possessing cigarettes can be fined $50.

“Alcohol, in my opinion, would be greatly more harmful than marijuana,” McCormick said.

After amending the bill to provide exceptions for medical marijuana patients who possess cannabis products, the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice passed HB 700 last week. The bill will be up for debate in the Lousiana House of Representatives on Monday. It is scheduled to go before the floor at the House of Representatives on Tuesday, April 5.