Will Louisiana fully legalize marijuana? 10 things to know about the debate

This story was first reported by Louisiana Illuminator and republished with permission.

The Louisiana Legislature took a major step toward fully legalizing marijuana products for recreational use when — for the first time that anyone can remember — a legislative committee sent a bill to fully legalize marijuana to the House  for consideration.

The House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice voted 7-5 Tuesday for legislation that would decriminalize and legalize marijuana for recreational use. Democrats, Republicans and one politically independent lawmaker backed the bill.

Here’s what you need to know about the debate over marijuana in Louisiana right now:

A conservative Republican is leading the fight for full marijuana legalization

Rep. Richard Nelson is carrying the marijuana legalization bill headed to the House floor for a full vote. Nelson, 34, is an unlikely advocate for the marijuana cause. He’s a conservative Republican representing Mandeville, a right-leaning area of the state.

“I’ve never smoked marijuana in my life,” Nelson told committee members.

Nevertheless, Nelson said he is frustrated that Louisiana spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually arresting and locking people up for marijuana-related offenses. Despite all the efforts to combat marijuana use, the drug is still prevalent, he said.

Nelson said he would rather marijuana be legalized so the state can tax it because the only people who currently benefit from recreational marijuana use are criminals.

Polls suggest full marijuana legalization is popular

Polls suggest that full marijuana legalization — for medical and recreational use — is gaining popularity across the political spectrum in Louisiana. Sixty-seven percent of Louisiana residents said they favored fully legal marijuana, according to a survey conducted by JMC Analytics and Polling earlier this year.

More than half of people identifying as Republicans and Democrats supported full marijuana legalization in the poll, though people over 65 years old were less likely to view it favorably, according to the survey results

Those polls might not matter as much, given that sheriffs are still opposed to legalization

Polls are likely to sway some lawmakers, but a powerful constituency at the Capitol — Louisiana sheriffs — are still opposed to full legalization. Sheriffs hold enormous political sway in several Louisiana communities, particularly those in rural areas.

The Louisiana Sheriffs Association formally opposed Nelson’s bill Tuesday, saying it would lead to an increase in traffic accidents and teenage suicides, though the organization did not provide much evidence to back up those statements.

Mike Ranatza, executive director for the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, told lawmakers that no amount of tax revenue that would be produced by marijuana legalization — which Nelson says could top $100 million — is worth the risk to public health.

“Is $100  million worth the death of my child? My grandchild? Is it worth the death of yours?” Ranatza asked lawmakers. “It is worth it to you?”

The Louisiana District Attorneys Association also opposed the bill, urging legislators to study the effects of marijuana legalization before moving forward with it. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards might be shifting his opinion on the issue

Louisiana Democrats have largely favored full marijuana legalization for years, but one Democrat — the most important Democrat — has not. Gov. John Bel Edwards has been opposed to legalization of recreational marijuana since he first ran for statewide office in 2015. Edwards is the son, grandson and brother of sheriffs.

Yet on Tuesday, Edwards declined to say whether he would veto the bill if it made it through the Legislature.

“I’ll take a bill as it arrives on my desk and see what it contains,” Edwards said at a press conference.

The proposal includes a ‘free market’ approach — with few marijuana regulations

Nelson, as a conservative who supports “free market” approaches to commerce, said he is not interested in weighing down the marijuana market with lots of regulation. His legislation has relatively lax rules in terms who would be able to sell and grow marijuana. Retailers and wholesale sellers would just have to pass a basic background check.

In Nelson’s current legislation, there are no limits on how much a commercial enterprise could grow. Retailers would be given the generous cap of one ounce of marijuana product per customer per day. Internet sales would be prohibited and advertising would be significantly restricted — similar to the limitations placed on cigarette companies.

Retail marijuana shops also wouldn’t be able to sell products — like food and cigarettes — on their premises. Marijuana consumption also couldn’t take place at a marijuana retail outlet. The outlets would also have to pay a $2,500 licensing fee every year, according to a separate bill also introduced by Nelson. This second piece of legislation — which just addresses fees and licenses — has not come up for a vote in committee yet.

Nelson said he wanted to avoid stringent marijuana regulations — such as those seen in California –and modeled the bill’s government oversight approach after what Oklahoma, another conservative state, recently passed.

The proposal would allow people to grow marijuana for personal use

Nelson’s legislation would allow people to apply for permits to grow their own marijuana plants for personal use. The current bill restricts each individual to six plants and caps household marijuana growth at 12 plants. The plants would have to be “screened from public view.” People who wanted to grow plants at home would have to pay a $100 annual fee, according to Nelson’s second piece of legislation.

If legalized, recreational marijuana would carry a high tax

If legalized, recreational marijuana wouldn’t come cheap under Nelson’s proposal. The representative has a third bill to address taxation of recreational marijuana should it become legal. That bill — sitting in the House Committee on Ways and Means — hasn’t come up for a vote yet.

Nelson said the House leadership is waiting to see how receptive legislators are to the initial recreational marijuana bill that’s moving, before bringing up the recreational marijuana tax bill for debate.

At the retail level, Nelson has proposed that people purchasing marijuana products pay an additional 10 percent levy on top of the existing sales tax. There would also be a five percent tax on marijuana products at the wholesale level.

The Legislature’s independent fiscal office has not determined how much money a tax on marijuana could produce.

Law enforcement is opposed, but they might fight for a bigger chunk of tax revenue

If law enforcement organizations — like the sheriffs and district attorneys — start to believe that marijuana will be fully legalized, they’ll likely make a big push to get more of whatever tax revenue is produced.

Currently, Nelson’s proposal would divide up marijuana tax and licensing fee revenue as follows: 20 percent would go toward local law enforcement budgets in the municipality where the marijuana was purchased, 30 percent would go to local governments in the municipality where the marijuana was purchased and 50 percent would go to the state for unrestricted use.

Conservatives who oppose Nelson’s legislation have already said they want a larger chunk of that revenue to go toward law enforcement spending if the legislation passes. Nelson said he is open to negotiation

If not fully legalized, recreational marijuana use could be decriminalized

Even if recreational marijuana didn’t get approved, there’s a possibility Louisiana would decriminalize marijuana through Nelson’s legislation or another decriminalization bill sponsored by Rep. Candance Newell, D-New Orleans. The House criminal justice committee also approved Newell’s bill Tuesday, which would remove criminal penalties for marijuana statewide, but doesn’t set up a framework for legally selling and taxing marijuana products.

If recreational use isn’t fully legalized or decriminalized, state is still likely to expand medical marijuana

Even if both the full legalization and decriminalization marijuana efforts fail this year, Louisiana is on track to further expand its medical marijuana program. The Louisiana House has already approved a taxing structure for medical marijuana in a raw, plant form — which is not currently available in the state. House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma, is behind that legislation to loosen marijuana restrictions.