- Associated Press - Thursday, April 3, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A New Orleans lawmaker’s proposal to soften penalties for marijuana possession was derailed Thursday by opposition from Louisiana sheriffs.

Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, pulled his bill from consideration in the House Criminal Justice Committee after testimony by the head of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, Michael Ranatza.

Ranatza said sheriffs fear the bill could lead to decriminalization of marijuana. He said lawmakers should gather more data on the effects of reducing penalties for marijuana possession before backing the proposal.

An angry Badon said he had believed the association was lukewarm on the proposal and would stay neutral in the debate, and he was given no warning otherwise.

“Because I was broadsided like that, I have decided to voluntarily defer this bill,” he said.

Ranatza said the association routinely opposes bills that loosen sentences for drug possession. He said the association has not spoken with Badon on this matter since last year, when Badon proposed a similar bill that received House passage but failed in the Senate.

Kevin Kane, president of the right-leaning Pelican Institute for Public Policy, also opposed the bill, but for a different reason from the sheriffs. He said the bill is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough.

“We need to do something more ambitious,” he said.

Under the proposal, prison time and fines would be lessened for second, third and fourth offenses for marijuana possession.

Currently, those caught with marijuana for a second time can be jailed for up to five years. For third and subsequent offenses, a person can be locked up for as many as 20 years.

Badon’s bill would reduce those penalties to up to two years in prison for second offenses, up to five years in prison for third offenses and up to eight years in prison for fourth offenses.

It also would prevent some marijuana possession convictions from applying toward someone being classified as a habitual offender, which comes with harsher penalties.

Committee members seemed split on the measure.

Rep. Steve Plyant, R-Winnsboro, opposed the bill, describing marijuana as a “gateway drug” to other substance abuse. Rep. Ebony Woodruff, D-Harvey, said the law on marijuana possession was unfair because it was too harsh.

“It appears you got the family divided here,” said Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia.

Landry asked Badon to defer his proposal.

Thursday’s shelving of Badon’s bill wasn’t expected to end debate on reducing penalties for marijuana possession in Louisiana. Several other bills are awaiting consideration by legislators.

One proposal from Rep. Dalton Honore, D-Baton Rouge, would reduce penalties for marijuana offenses. Another proposal by Sens. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, and Robert Adley, R-Benton, would make second and subsequent offenses of marijuana possession a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

___

Online:

House Bills 14 and 130 and Senate Bill 323 can be found at www.legis.la.gov

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