Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal Signs Marijuana Reform Bills

BATON ROUGE, LA — As expected, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on Monday signed into law two marijuana reform bills that were passed by the legislature earlier this year.

Of the two bill signed by Jindal, one is aimed at reducing Louisiana’s harsh penalties for marijuana possession, and the other is intended to provide access to medical marijuana 24 years after the state authorized its use.

PENALTY REDUCTION

While not a full marijuana decriminalization bill, House Bill 149 reduces some of the state’s draconian penalties for marijuana possession.  Currently, Louisiana is home to some of the harshest penalties for marijuana convictions in the country, with misdemeanor penalties for first time marijuana offenses for even the smallest amount (up to 60 pounds) of marijuana punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.  A second conviction can land an offender behind bars for five years and a $2,500 fine, and is considered a felony.  Third and subsequent offenses bring punishments of up to 20 years in jail with hard labor and a $5,000 fine.

House Bill 149 reduces these penalties significantly by making the possession of less than 14 grams of marijuana punishable by maximum sentence of a $300 fine and 15 days in jail. Penalties for the first offense of possessing more than 14 grams (up to 60 pounds) do not change, but second offenses will become a misdemeanor, instead of the current felony, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.  Third offenses remain a felony, but the maximum penalty is reduced from 20 years in jail to only two, and a fine of up to $2,500.  Fourth or subsequent offenses remain a felony punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and eight years in prison, compared to current penalties of up to 20 years behind bars.

House Bill 149 also contains a “second chance” provision that would allow offenders to apply to have their first marijuana offense expunged from their record, as long as they aren’t convicted of a second marijuana charge within two years of the first offense.

An August 2013 Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey found that 56% of likely voters favor citing individuals for simple marijuana possession over arresting them. The same poll found that 64% said they are against strict penalties for repeat offenders.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA

Senate Bill 143 amends a 1991 law that authorized the limited medical use of marijuana, but did not provide access for patients. The law was never fully implemented, as it required the medical marijuana use to be “in accordance with FDA and DEA administrative guidelines” and a federally authorized supply of marijuana as authorized by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  Under the bill, the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy would be allowed to adopt rules and regulations for dispensing up to ten medical marijuana distribution sites statewide, which would be located within existing pharmacies.

The Department of Agriculture and Forestry would be responsible for oversight of the state’s single marijuana cultivation facility allowed under the bill.

Under the proposal, medical marijuana would be authorized in all forms “except for inhalation” or “raw or crude” cannabis.

An amendment made to the bill in the House clarified that doctors do not “prescribe” medical marijuana — which is not allowed under current federal law and exposes doctors to federal criminal sanctions — but instead “recommend” medical marijuana to patients.  Unlike “prescriptions,” recommendations and certifications are federally legal and protected under the First Amendment. The amendment, however, was not approved by the Senate, and doctors remain required to “prescribe” medical marijuana to patients, and medical marijuana advocates are skeptical that Senate Bill 143 will be fully implemented.

Senate Bill 143 takes effect upon being signed by the Governor.  The Louisiana Board of Pharmacy and the Department of Agriculture and Forestry now have until January 1, 2016 to submit proposed medical marijuana regulations to the legislature.

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