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Effort To Legalize Recreational Marijuana In Louisiana Dies On House Floor

Grape Crush, Indica-4.
Dank Depot
Flickr Creative Commons
Grape Crush, Indica-4.

A longshot bid to legalize recreational marijuana in Louisiana died on the House floor Tuesday after state representatives rejected the proposed tax system for the would-be industry.

The House of Representatives voted 47-48 on the proposal — 23 votes short of the 70 needed to enact a new tax.

Mandeville Republican Richard Nelson, who sponsored both the legalization bill (HB 699) and the proposed tax structure (HB 434) acknowledged that it would likely be two years before he or any other state lawmaker could mount a successful bid to legalize recreational marijuana in the state.

Tuesday’s vote marks the end of the legislation’s improbable march through the Louisiana State Capitol. The failure of the bipartisan effort shows that state lawmakers’ attitudes toward legalization of recreational marijuana are softening, but they still lag well behind the views of their constituents.

Nelson, a first-term Republican, was the unlikely face of the legalization effort. The clean-cut former Eagle Scout who consistently votes with the most conservative members of the state GOP said he has never smoked marijuana. He joked in committee that his high school classmates would have voted him “least likely to legalize marijuana.”

But Nelson said after nearly a century of trying and failing to prevent Louisianans from using marijuana, it is now time for the state to admit its mistakes and become the 18th state to legalize recreational marijuana.

“No matter how long you’ve gone down the wrong road, turn back,” Nelson said during an early committee hearing for his bill last month. “I think that’s pretty applicable to Louisiana’s marijuana policy now.”

His views are in line with a majority of Louisianans.

In March, a poll conducted by John Couvillon of JMC Analytics — and commissioned by a pro-marijuana lobbying group — found that 67 percent of Louisiana residents favor legalization of medical and recreational marijuana. That figure was up 13 percent from a similar study the group conducted one year earlier.

An independently funded poll conducted by Ed Chervenak and the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center showed that a smaller share — 55 percent — of Louisianans favored the legalization of recreational marijuana.

But the Louisiana Sheriffs Association (LSA) put up stiff opposition to the legalization effort — opposition that ultimately doomed the legislation.

LSA Executive Director Mike Ranatza lobbied House members, sending them a “floor note” asking them to vote against Nelson’s HB 699. Ranatza acknowledged that recreational marijuana will inevitably be legalized in Louisiana, but he argued that the issue needed further study before his organization could get on board. Ranatza favored another measure — HR1 by New Iberia Democrat Marcus Bryant — to do just that.

“We must first understand the resources needed to combat these problems,” Ranatza wrote. “We must understand the pitfalls experienced by other states who have legalized marijuana rather than just a quick rush to judgement.”

Republican Bryan Fontenot of Thibodeaux, a former law enforcement officer and frequent ally of the LSA, opposed Nelson's bills in the House Criminal Justice Committee and on the House floor Tuesday afternoon, arguing that the proposed tax structure did not dedicate a large enough percentage of the expected revenues to law enforcement to compensate for marijuana related fines and fees lost by making the drug legal.

Economists from the Legislative Fiscal Office estimated that the recreational marijuana industry would have generated $12 million in state revenue in its first year after legalization and up to $82 million once the industry was up and running.

Nelson’s bill would have dedicated 20 percent of those funds to local law enforcement.

Fontenot did not say what percentage of the revenue would be adequate. He also complained that Nelson’s proposal sent no money to other top legislative priorities, like early childhood education or transportation infrastructure.

“This bill doesn’t just fail you and I, this bill fails the people of Louisiana,” Fontenot said.

Fontenot offered no alternative funding scheme and instead echoed the LSA’s calls for further study of the issue.

“We all love studies. We love doing nothing and talking about it,” Nelson retorted. “The truth is right now, all this money, it’s zero. It’s going to the drug dealers. If we don’t pass this bill, it’s going to go to the drug dealers this year, it’s going to go to the drug dealers next year and it’s probably going to go to the drug dealers the year after that.”

Tax measures can only be taken up during “fiscal sessions” held in odd numbered years. So another attempt to legalize the drug would have to wait until 2023, unless legislators call a special session to do so.

Even if the bills had cleared the House, the legislation would have faced an uphill battle to become law.

The Louisiana Senate has typically favored tighter restrictions on marijuana. And Gov. John Bel Edwards had not indicated whether or not he would sign Nelson’s bills into law.

When asked about the legislation last month, Edwards said he “had great interest” in the legislation but he would reserve judgment until it cleared the legislature.

Edwards has previously said he would oppose legalizing recreational marijuana in Louisiana. The second-term Democrat comes from a law enforcement family and secured the endorsement of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association in both of his gubernatorial campaigns.

But despite Tuesday’s defeat, people pushing for broader access to cannabis in Louisiana — and the increased tax revenue it provides — are not likely to go home empty handed at the end of this legislative session.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee’s HB 391 and HB 514, which would expand the state’s medical marijuana program to allow smokable forms of the drug and tax the proceeds it generates, have already won the approval of the House and are on pace to win the approval of the full Senate.

Rep. Cedric Glover’s HB 652, which would eliminate the possibility of jail time for possession of 14 grams or fewer of marijuana, has already cleared the House and is awaiting a hearing in a Senate judiciary committee.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.