BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana won't lessen its penalties for marijuana possession, keeping laws on the books that allow people to be jailed up to 20 years for repeat offenses of having the drug in hand.
Senators narrowly refused Tuesday to reduce the criminal penalties, siding with the state's district attorneys and sheriffs against the proposal. The 4-3 vote of a Senate judiciary committee was expected to kill the measure for the legislative session.
"It's not going anywhere," said Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, chairman of the judiciary committee and a former judge who opposed the bill.
Sens. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, and Robert Adley, R-Benton, sought to make simple possession of marijuana a misdemeanor carrying a sentence of no more than six months in jail, no matter how many times a person is convicted of the crime.
Current law toughens penalties for second and later offenses, carrying felony sentences and possibly several years in jail. A person convicted of marijuana possession on a third offense can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.
Supporters said such tough sentences for someone who wasn't selling or distributing the drug are out of step with the criminal laws of most other states, including the neighboring states of Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas. They said Louisiana locks up too many people for a minor offense and those jail sentences cost the state more than it can afford.
"We're not trying to decriminalize marijuana possession. We're trying to change how we treat it," Morrell said.
He said the state spends more than $20 million a year in prison costs for people jailed for felony marijuana possession. He said the state should focus more on treatment for addiction.
Opposition came from sheriffs and district attorneys who called marijuana a "gateway drug" and said lessening penalties would increase its use.
"We cannot lower the bar to allow substandard behavior in Louisiana," said John DeRosier, Calcasieu Parish district attorney. "We need to keep the bar where it is and make people behave themselves."
Adley said he was concerned about people getting felony convictions on their records for marijuana possession. He said that makes it difficult for people to get jobs, and he said it could doom their children to difficulties all because someone did a "dumb thing" as a teenager.
"You're condemning them," he said.
Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association, said the bill would lead to legalization of marijuana and would contribute to more people smoking it.
"When the risk of that drug goes down, the use of that drug goes up," he said.
The debate stretched over several hours, in a wide-ranging discussion on whether the national "War on Drugs" has been a failure, whether drug sentences fall more harshly on the poor and on minorities and whether individual legislators had ever smoked marijuana.
Libertarian and liberal organizations both united in support of the bill, but they couldn't overcome the power of law enforcement organizations.
Voting to defer the bill were Kostelka and Sens. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan; Elbert Guillory, R-Opelousas; and Mack "Bodi" White, R-Baton Rouge.
Voting against deferral were Adley and Sens. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge; and Fred Mills, R-Breaux Bridge.