If you have been convicted of a marijuana-related offense in the Big Easy, things may not have been so easy for you. According to nola.com, in recent years, “About 40 people are taken into custody for marijuana possession each month in New Orleans, and they spend an average of five to 14 days in jail before their trial, depending on the specific offense.”
But in early August, the New Orleans City Council passed several agenda items to end penalties for small amounts of cannabis possession while simultaneously pardoning about 10,000 people with convictions and pending cases. These legislative acts were passed in the context of reducing the penalties for minor marijuana violations while also addressing the underlying mistrust that causes tension between police and New Orleans’ citizens, especially people of color.
As reported by the Vera Institute of Justice (VIJ), “Black men were 50% more likely than white men–and black women 55% more likely than white women, to be arrested.” Moreover, VIJ found that “Eighty-five percent of those arrested for marijuana-related offenses (not including distribution) are black, even though black people make up roughly 60 percent of the population.”
Writing for Dope magazine, Benjamin M. Adams reports Ordinance 33,328, along with others, will “. . . allow New Orleans police to focus on reducing violent crime instead of wasting their time with petty marijuana charges. While the New Orleans City Council doesn’t have the authority to legalize adult-use marijuana, it has the ability to decriminalize it through an ordinance changing police policy.”
While smoking marijuana will remain prohibited in public spaces, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) will now give a ticket in violation of the Smoke-Free Air Act, which is not a drug charge, and will not result in a court summons, thus freeing up the courts and allowing people to get on with their lives with minimal disruption. Ordinance 33,328 builds upon and clarifies ordinance 31,148, passed in 2016.
In addition to decriminalizing marijuana, 33,328 also limits the use of marijuana paraphernalia as part of the law enforcement process and addresses the controversial issue of marijuana testing. Specifically, it will “exclude marijuana testing from certain drug testing programs” as well as “exclude marijuana accessories from the definition of drug paraphernalia.”
Another historically important component is the retroactive pardoning of people sentenced for minor marijuana violations, which could affect upwards of 10,000 people. As Dope reports, “Pardons for about 10,000 past offenses are expected to go into effect immediately. The automatic pardons of future offenses, however, won’t go into effect until September 15—giving police time to adjust to the new policy. The City Council will be required to pardon anyone arrested for possession of marijuana between now and then.”
New Orleans Councilmember Jay H. Banks applauds these measures, stating, “Utilizing our limited public safety resources in the most efficient way makes sense. Our focus should be on violent criminals and those who would hurt others. Pardoning these offenses and freeing up resources in our overburdened criminal justice system are important steps towards making our city much safer for all of us.”
It is also hoped these new policies will help build trust between law enforcement and community members. New Orleans Council President Helena Moreno captured this perspective, saying, “These new policies will help NOPD build community trust and use saved manpower hours to address major issues like shootings, murders, and the overall prevention of violence in our city. We must begin to rethink the historical practices that have over-incarcerated, over-fined, and stigmatized our communities for decades. The time to end the criminalization of cannabis possession is now. I’m proud of what this City Council has accomplished today. This is historic.”
In reality, the new policies build upon previous work that sought to reduce the incarceration of people for simple marijuana possession. As the publication, The Lens points out, “In 2008, around 1,500 people in New Orleans were taken to jail for possession of small amounts of marijuana. But after a decade of work by the New Orleans City Council to encourage police to divert resources away from marijuana enforcement, that number was down to 39 in 2019, and 22 in 2020.”
And with an eye toward the future, Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer stated, “I’m proud that this Council is finally going to end decades of racist raids and arrests that have ruined the lives of mostly Black and brown people in New Orleans. Marijuana is legal in dozens of states and soon to be legal in ours. We can now stop wasting police time and resources on marijuana and let them go fight violent crime.”
There is of course positive reaction from some people in the New Orleans community. New Orleans resident Adrian Bruneau, in a nod toward the use of marijuana in ameliorating PTSD, said, “We’re no longer going to trap people into the criminal justice system, we’re no longer going to hamstring people that are in law enforcement, and we’re not going to handcuff people who are simply trying to medicate or to relax or to be an adult and enjoy this.” And resident Perry Brown said, “The only thing it does is relaxes our mind. It’s way better than pills and booze. All that stuff does is gives us the blues.”
Let’s hope that the Crescent City, which has endured an inordinate amount of suffering, has a brighter future as it moves slowly toward full legalization.
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