Friday, January 24, 2014

House Committee Informational Session on Legalizing Marijuana for Medical Use

On Tuesday, January 21st, of this week, Sandra Slifer, President of the League of Women Voters of Louisiana, and two members of the Northshore New Jim Crow Task Force, Bonnie Schmidt and Anita Dugat-Greene, carpooled to Baton Rouge to attend the afternoon session of the Louisiana House of Representatives Administration of Criminal Justice Committee. Representative Dalton Honoré had requested this session "to discuss the feasibility of legalizing marijuana for medical use" ("Louisiana lawmakers hear case for legalizing medical, recreational marijuana," Lauren McGaughey, The Times Picayune, 22 January 2014). Shortly before the session was to begin at 1:30 p.m., the room quickly filled with observers, those who had come to listen and those who planned to speak when the microphone was opened to the public. [links to the videotaped and archived session below]

Chairman Joseph Lopinto called the meeting to order, reminded the crowd that the session was for gathering information, and gave brief instructions for those who wished to speak publicly. Rep. Honoré opened the session with background on the two years of discussion and study that he and others have given to the subject of the state's laws on marijuana use. His purpose today, he said, was to focus on discussing the medical use of marijuana. He reminded his colleagues and the audience that in 1991, Louisiana had passed a law allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for limited medical use but had not followed through with any legislation that would allow those prescriptions to be filled. As an article in The Advocate states
The 1991 statute calls for patients suffering from glaucoma, chemotherapy treatments and spastic quadriplegia to receive marijuana for therapeutic use. The statute hinged on the secretary of health and hospitals promulgating rules and regulations by Jan. 1, 1992. Apparently, those rules and regulations never materialized.( "Governor open to availability under law under 'very strict supervision,'" Michelle Millhollen and Mark Ballard, The Advocate, 23 January 2014)
Rep. Honoré also described that as a (now retired) law enforcement officer, he had arrested people who consequently were sentenced to prison for marijuana use or distribution but that the public's attitude toward the drug has changed over the years, with other states decriminalizing marijuana or making it legal. He was here in this session, however, not to advocate for the legalization of marijuana for recreational use but for following through with the 1991 law, asking for medical acceptance of marijuana so that people could get their prescriptions filled. After his opening comments, he ceded the floor to various public officials and private citizens. Among the most moving testimonies were those of people with chronic conditions that could be relieved by marijuana use and of parents of children with severe epileptic episodes whose symptoms they believed could also be reduced by medically prescribed marijuana. Advocates spoke for and against legalizing the use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, but those in favor of easing the restrictive Louisiana laws were by far in the majority.

The New Jim Task Force is most concerned with Louisiana's harsh penalties for non-violent drug offenders, among the harshest laws--perhaps the harshest--in the United States, with third-time marijuana offenders facing up to twenty years in prison. The punishment seems too harsh for the crime, and, in addition, there is ample evidence to suggest that penalties are not racially neutral. According to The Wall Street Journal, a report issued in February of 2013 by the Federal Sentencing Committee found that between December 2007 and September 2011, sentences of African American men were 19.5% longer than those for whites convicted of the same crimes and that African American men "were 25% less likely than whites in the same period to receive a sentence below the guideline's range." These are federal statistics.

The Northshore New Jim Crow Task Force members who attended this session of the Administration of Criminal Justice Committee were impressed once again with the importance of public engagement in civic discourse, and we strongly encourage our fellow citizens to stay informed, to attend open meetings in the state capitol, and to communicate their concerns to their legislators. Many people at this meeting spoke passionately of their concerns, and for this limited time, at least, legislators heard their voices.

Access to the Archived Video of Chamber and Committees The sessions in the Louisiana legislature are often broadcast live and the videos later archived and accessible online: You can access the session for January 21, 2014, 1:30 p.m., by going directly to the archived website at Scroll down to the entries for Jan. 21, 2014, and click on the third item in the list "Criminal Justice," dated Jan 21, 01:30 PM HCR-6.

For more information: 
Lauren McGaughy, "Louisiana lawmakers hear case for legalizing medical, recreational marijuana," The Times-Picayune, 21 January 2014.

Alex Woodward,  "Louisiana's Week in Marijuana," Gambit, 23 January 2014.

Marsha Shuler, "Legislators Urged to Consider Lesser Penalties,"The Advocate,  23 January 2014.

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