- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - New Orleans police will have greater leeway to issue summons and smaller fines instead of arresting and jailing offenders accused of simple marijuana possession under a new ordinance approved Thursday by the city council.

The council unanimously approved the new guidelines, which proponents say would allow police to focus its attention on more serious, violent crimes.

Under the new ordinance, the police would have the option of issuing a summons and a charging a fine ranging from $40 to $100 for simple marijuana possession. The size of the fine would depend on whether the person was a repeat offender.

The police already have that discretion the first time a person is arrested for marijuana possession, after an ordinance was passed in 2010. But the new regulations extend the lesser penalties to repeat offenders.

Police would still be able to use harsher state laws that include arrest, jail time and more expensive fines if police think it’s warranted.

Susan Guidry, the council member who proposed the ordinance, cited the success of the 2010 ordinance in proposing the new regulations. She said 5,000 fewer arrests had been made and police appeared to be issuing summons equally between black and white offenders.

Guidry pointed out the time and energy that it takes for a police officer to arrest someone caught smoking marijuana and to process the arrest through the system.

“I think that there is a trend throughout the country that we have been incarcerating too many people for nonviolent crimes,” she said.

Wendy Adams, the executive director of the city’s Libertarian Party, called on councilmembers to approve the new regulations, saying that when offenders go to jail they’re less likely to go back to school and more at risk of going back to jail in the future.

“This is unacceptable. It’s time for a change,” she said.

But Stephanie Haynes, from the Greater New Orleans Drug Demand Reduction Coalition, raised concerns about the ordinance. She said while she didn’t think jail time was appropriate for simple marijuana possession, she said the effect of the legislation was to tell people that smoking marijuana was “no big deal.”

“Does this city council really want to make the use of a mind-altering drug more prevalent in New Orleans?” she said.

The regulations now go to Mayor Mitch Landrieu. If signed, they would go into effect within 90 days.

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Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.

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