Marijuana legalization should be up to Louisiana voters

A Louisiana legislator has proposed putting marijuana legalization to a statewide vote during the presidential election in 2016. 

Rep. Dalton Honore, D-Baton Rouge, has filed legislation to put possession, distribution and dispensing of marijuana and its derivatives on the Louisiana ballot Nov. 8, 2016. Voters would be deciding on not only the presidential race, but also congressional seats that day as well. 

Last year, 79 percent of Louisiana residents participating in an LSU survey said they supported some marijuana legalization. If Honore’s initiative passed, people over 21 years-old would be able to carry and purchase marijuana without the threat of criminal charges. 

“If I can get it to the people, it will pass with flying colors,” Honore said. 

Similar voter-driven initiatives lead to the legalization of marijuana in Washington state, Colorado and Washington D.C. Several state legislatures — including most states in New England — are also considering marijuana legalization bills. 

Honore said marijuana criminal charges have ruined too many lives in Louisiana. As of June 2013, 1,372 Louisianians were serving sentences for simple marijuana possession. The average sentence is 8.4 years. More than 78 percent of these offenders are black.

Honore has heard privately from several legislators who support marijuana legalization, but don’t feel they can openly vote for its approval. But he thinks some of these lawmakers might be able to vote for an bill that would let the voters decide how they feel about the drug. 

“[Lawmakers] tell me ‘I’m for your bill, but I can’t afford to come out for it,'” Honore said. 

The Representative has filed a separate bill that would allow for marijuana to be dispensed and used only for medical purposes. Honore and state Sen. Fred Mills, R-New Iberia, brought up very similar medical marijuana legislation last year, but the proposal was killed in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. 

The powerful Louisiana Sheriffs Association and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell opposed the medical marijuana legislation. Twenty-three states and Washington D.C. currently allow for medical marijuana use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Like Honore, Mills also intends to push another medical marijuana this year. The state Senator, who is a pharmacist, says he continues to get calls from cancer patients who want access to marijuana for treatment purposes. 

“I’ve been work with the sheriffs and district attorneys offices. … I think I’m making progress, but it’s hard to say,” Mills said.

Mills is hoping to reach a compromise with the sheriffs and district attorneys about medical marijuana. He would prefer to keep the recreational marijuana discussion out of the medical marijuana debate, because law enforcement appears more troubled by recreational use.

“I’m trying to find a way for the medical argument to stand alone,” Mills said.   

Gov. Bobby Jindal has said he would be open to legal medical marijuana, as long as it was tightly regulated. He is opposed to full legalization of the drug. 

It’s also possible that dispensaries could arrive in Louisiana through Indian tribal land, thereby side-stepping any legislative requirement. The U.S. Department of Justice has said it will not prevent Indian tribes from growing marijuana on sovereign lands. 

Louisiana is home to at least four federally-recognized tribes. The Chitmacha Tribe of Louisiana has land near Charenton in Acadiana.  The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana owns about 5,000 acres near Elton in Southwest Louisiana. The Jena Band of Choctaw Indians and Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe of Louisiana are headquartered in central Louisiana. 

No Louisiana-based tribe has expressed a public interest in growing or dispensing marijuana yet. 

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