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Lawmakers Not Ready to Reduce Pot Penalties

  The House Criminal Justice committee took up the first of several bills that have been filed to change Louisiana’s marijuana laws on Thursday. New Orleans Representative Austin Badon is the author of a measure to reduce penalties for second-offense and subsequent convictions for marijuana possession. His bill would also prevent simple possession from being counted toward “three strikes” and life imprisonment.

“I wish it would do more,” Badon said. “I really do.”

Mike Ranatza, head of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, warned committee members this could be the first step onto a slippery slope.

“It always starts with lessening the penalties,” Ranatza said. “It ends up with legalization.”

Further, Ranatza asked the lawmakers to search their souls.

“Pause and reflect about the direction we want to take,” Ranatza implored.

Kevin Kane, president of the conservative-leaning think tank Pelican Institute, spoke in favor of the bill.

“This is a bill that actually does take us in the right direction,” Kane assured the legislators, adding, “Simple possession of marijuana being a felony simply offends—really--most anybody’s sense of justice.”

Louisiana ACLU director Marjorie Esman also spoke in favor of the bill’s provision removing simple possession from the habitual offender rules.

“Marijuana possession could be used to send somebody away forever, life without parole,” Esman said of current law. “That doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t match what the people of Louisiana really want.”

Last summer, the ACLU commissioned a statewide poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling. It showed that 64% of Louisiana residents opposed having marijuana possession count toward “three strikes” and a life sentence.

But committee member Steve Pylant of Winnsboro, the former Franklin Parish sheriff, said he still subscribes to marijuana theory first publicized in the 1980’s.

“They said then that marijuana was a gateway drug; that it led to the use of all other drugs,” Pylant declared. “And I think that anybody in this room would realize that it’s still the same today.”

Several committee members asked Badon to voluntarily defer his bill—including former State Police Commander Terry Landry of New Iberia, and Baton Rouge Representative Dalton Honore’. Honore’ is a former sheriff’s deputy, and the author of a bill similar to Badon’s.

“I have a smile on my face, but I’m pretty ticked right now,” Badon said as he reluctantly asked for the bill to be deferred.

Badon told the committee the Sheriffs Association would not oppose his bill, and that he felt that he had “been broadsided.”