Why Louisiana's Best Option Is to Legalize Marijuana

The state will not be able to solve its massive economic and incarceration problems without regulating and taxing the sale of pot.

Image REUTERS/Mike Segar
REUTERS/Mike Segar

Louisiana is in quite a predicament: It’s broke, really broke.

State lawmakers just barely averted meltdown Wednesday by weaving together a patchwork of last-minute, temporary measures to clear up most of a near $940+ million budget shortfall. The state is still $30 million in the hole, and will have to resolve another $800 million deficit come the next fiscal year on July 1— all gifts left behind by former governor Bobby Jindal. Louisiana’s new Governor, John Bel Edwards, has inherited these big shorts, and there is no easy way out.

As the Associated Press reports, Jindal went wild distributing state tax credits, privatizing services, and plundering state reserves during his two terms as governor in the name of keeping his promise to not raise taxes. All this did was leave Louisiana residents “living in a fictional world for the last eight years,” Jindal’s former lieutenant governor, Jay Dardenne, told the AP. (The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)

It’s a fictional world that’s had real consequences as Louisiana residents, mostly African Americans, live daily with the threat of getting absorbed into the one institution that does enjoy budget prioritization: prison. Meanwhile, despite being among the states with the highest cancer and HIV/AIDS rates in the country, Louisiana is now weighing making millions of dollars in cuts to its hospitals and universities to clean up Jindal’s mess. This overall economic disaster is being made worse by the recent precipitous drop in oil prices, which has disrupted the drilling industry Louisiana relies upon heavily.  

Louisiana is already starving out needed services, such as public defenders offices, which are overburdened with caseloads in a state notorious for its extreme levels of incarceration—a rep built in part on its historically merciless sentencing rules for drug convictions.

But there is an option that could deliver solutions for the state’s fiscal, criminal justice, and health crises: Legalizing weed.

Over in Colorado, that course of action is paying off for the state handsomely. The legal, regulated sale of marijuana brought in nearly a $1 billion last year, which amounted to $135 million in tax revenue for the state. A study released earlier this month from the Marijuana Policy Group found that a tax on medical marijuana alone could bring Louisiana roughly $13 million a year in new revenue. That kind of windfall would be a true boon for Louisiana. But what’s holding the state back from embracing similar measures is, well, Louisiana.

“The prevailing attitude here is this is a conservative, law-and-order state, so I couldn’t see Louisiana being on the forefront of legalizing marijuana,” says Kevin Kane, the president of the New Orleans-based Pelican Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for criminal justice reform in the state. “I do think that probably all states are looking at Colorado and finding that legalizing marijuana could be a big source of revenue. This budget issue here is a huge one, so some legislators might be looking at anything to raise revenues. But politically, legalizing marijuana is not possible now.”

Louisiana did pass a couple of bills last year that reform criminal penalties for marijuana possession and also pave the way for medical marijuana. State lawmaker Dalton Honore, who represents Baton Rouge, is one of a few legislators who’ve been pushing for the state to go further on weed legalization. But no one has been bold enough to call for the state’s full-scale entry into the marijuana market, despite the fact that polls show nearly half of Louisiana residents favor recreational use and a majority approves of medical use.

Louisiana law does not allow citizens to put issues up for vote via statewide ballot initiative or referendum. Only state legislators can create such ballot instruments, but through bills that first must pass through the legislature. Honore attempted this last year, filing a bill that would have put the weed legalization question to voters by placing it on this year’s presidential ballot. But with no support from his colleagues, he ended up shelving the bill.

Even if legislative action finally caught up with the state’s voters, there are plenty of legal obstacles to overcome before marijuana could be legalized, as outlined by NOLA.com’s Kevin Litten. The Hail Mary play here would be a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning federal laws that criminalize weed, the way it did for same-sex marriage. Given SCOTUS’ current Antonin Scalia-less lineup, folks might want to start bringing forward some weed test cases.

Until then, weed advocates will have to find a way through the brick wall that is the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association (which did not respond to requests for comment). It has consistently and vehemently opposed any discussion about weed legalization. Last year, the ACLU of Louisiana was able to get the sheriffs to heel just enough to have them not fight the bill that relaxed sentencing guidelines for marijuana possession. This was an important step toward addressing the state’s incarceration issues. Louisiana sheriffs maintain that their changed position on the matter was about taking “a more practical approach that was geared toward public safety.” Yet the sheriffs remain staunchly opposed to legalization, citing debunked theories that it would increase drug use.

“They are typically our biggest opposition,” Maggie Ellinger-Locke, a legislative analyst for the D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, says of the sheriffs association. “Its not uncommon to have other arguments raised that legalizing marijuana opens the floodgates to legalizing other drugs, or that it would make it more accessible to children. The stats, of course don’t bear this out. We find that in states where it’s legal, minors have access to it at the same rates or sometimes even at lower rates.”

The claim that legalizing weed will push kids to harder drugs is one that will test well in the current political climate, especially with new attention turned to the heroin addiction crisis. But it could be that laws that make marijuana illegal are actually what’s pushing people to heroin. Sarah Skinner, an economics professor at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, explained to CityLab how this is already happening.

Under the market theory of “shipping the good apples out,” or the Alchian-Allen effect, explains Skinner, if the penalty for obtaining stronger drugs is similar to those for obtaining weaker drugs, people will opt for the stronger ones. The demand then drives down the cost of the stronger drugs, putting them within financial reach for those looking for more bang for their buck.

“Looking at the price of marijuana relative to the price of cocaine, when you have prohibition and people can not legally have marijuana, that makes some people want the harder, stronger stuff more than the less intensive drug,” Skinner says. She points to how alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century led to people making cheaper, more toxic brews of moonshine. The economist David Thornton suggests in his book The Economics of Prohibition that the alcohol ban of the 1920s and 1930s may have actually created the market for marijuana:

Alcohol prohibition affected the market for marijuana. As the price of alcohol products increased during Prohibition, the relative price of marijuana fell and its consumption began to rise. It proved to be particularly popular with the lower-income classes who could not afford the high price of alcohol. … Without the exposure that Prohibition provided, marijuana would likely have not become a matter of public concern or national legislation by 1937.

Louisiana sheriffs claim they don’t jail that many people for possessing weed anyway. There’s little data out there to substantiate that claim, but the fiscal notes for the law passed to soften sentencing for weed possession do offer some numbers. Prior to this law, a second possession conviction could mean up to five years in prison, and a third could mean a maximum sentence of 20 years. Those have been reduced to six months and two years, respectively.

In the notes, the state’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections says an average of 306 people had been jailed annually after their second weed possession charge, and given an average sentence of 18 months. The state estimates it will save as much as $3 million in one year by reducing the jail population with these new guidelines. The state expects to save roughy $16 million over the next five years.

Meanwhile, the ACLU estimates that the state spent as much as $46,450,368 in 2010 enforcing marijuana possession laws. Full legalization could wipe that amount off the state’s books, and throw even more into state coffers if it mustered the courage to actually tax and regulate marijuana.

That would, at the very least, more than cover the $700,000 that the New Orleans Public Defenders Office needs this year to stay afloat. Given that public defenders represent many defendants arrested for pot possession, that would considerably lighten the office’s case load and free up money for them to defend more important cases. (Like the cases they currently have to turn away due to the state’s broken funding apparatus.) While many agree the math on this makes sense for Louisiana, it will still take a long time to change lawmakers’ hearts and minds on full legalization.

“It’s not about years, it’s about events—certain things that need to happen that will trigger legalization,” says Jacob Irving, the communications chair for the Baton Rouge-based Sensible Marijuana Policy for Louisiana. “The sheriffs association has a lot of stake in state prison policies, and you’re gonna have a hard time getting them to support legalization,” he says. “They won’t wake up one day and think that this is a good thing, and they’re not willing to be objective about that. I’m going to keep trying to raise public support, but it won’t happen without sheriff’s support, or a change to the laws at the federal level.”

If Louisiana doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to tax and regulate weed soon, another state surely will—possibly a neighboring or nearby state like Texas or Florida. When Louisiana residents and tax dollars bolt to those states, only then might it realize it blew its opportunity. With the future of oil and fossil fuels murky, Louisiana is already under pressure to diversify its economy. The disastrous conditions of the state’s prison and healthcare systems truly make this an imperative. Louisiana: Legalize it, already.

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