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New Orleans Decriminalizes Marijuana In Historic Move

Starting September 15, if New Orleans cops write you up for weed possession, you’ll get a “prospective pardon”

The Fresh Toast

New Orleans is ending penalties for people found with small amounts of Cannabis. The law takes effect September 15, reports The Lens.

The City Council on Thursday passed several agenda items to end marijuana penalties, reports the Associated Press. They also approved pardoning about 10,000 convictions and pending cases, WGNO-TV reports. The pardons for past offenses go into effect immediately.

City officials said their goal is to increase community trust of police. Another aim is to allow New Orleans police to focus on reducing violent crime in the city.

The council doesn’t have the authority to legalize recreational marijuana. But it does have the authority to decriminalize it, WGNO reports. The Louisiana Legislature could legalize Cannabis, and in fact, discussed doing so recently.

Louisiana Governor Jon Bel Edwards, a Democrat, recently said that marijuana legalization “is going to happen.” The Legislature this year decriminalized weed; that law took effect on August 1. Medical marijuana is already legal in Louisiana.

New Orleans Issues Unique ‘Prospective Pardons’

The council was able to eliminate penalties to simple possession of marijuana in New Orleans by utilizing its pardon power prospectively and retrospectively, reports WDSU.

Those who get a summons pertaining to simple possession are immediately forgiven with no additional action necessary by the accused, the officer, or the court. No court appearance and no police report are needed.

Smoking weed in public will remain prohibited. But instead of the cops issuing a drug summons, it will be a ticket in violation of the Smoke-Free Air Act which is not a drug charge.

“These new policies will help NOPD build community trust and use saved manpower hours to address major issues like shootings, murders, and the overall prevention of violence in our city,” said Council President Helena Moreno. “We must begin to rethink the historical practices that have over-incarcerated, over-fined, and stigmatized our communities for decades. The time to end the criminalization of cannabis possession is now. I’m proud of what this City Council has accomplished today. This is historic.”

Moreno said that the concept of “prospective pardons” is to keep the city’s marijuana laws on the books, but to remove their teeth. She said the approach is unique to New Orleans. It was conceived by the council’s legal team.

“The whole notion of a preemptive pardon on a specific accusation or charge is something that no other city is doing, and no other city has tried,” Moreno said. “With their fantastic legal minds they were able to come up with this option for us.”

In order to make the “prospective pardons” legal the council also had to pass another ordinance allowing the City Council or mayor to pardon whole classes of people. They had previously only been able to issue pardons individuals who apply for them.

Pot Fines Waived After September 15

Penalties for simple marijuana possession under city law are $40 for a first offense and a maximum of $100 for subsequent offenses. But for anyone cited after Sept. 15, those fines will be automatically waived. A spokesperson for the NOPD did not respond to requests for comment regarding the new laws, reports The Lens. There was also no response on whether the department would continue to issue meaningless citations for simple marijuana possession after the law goes into effect. 

“Utilizing our limited public safety resources in the most efficient way makes sense,” said Councilmember Jay Banks, reports WWL. “Our focus should be on violent criminals and those who would hurt others. Pardoning these offenses and freeing up resources in our overburdened criminal justice system are important steps towards making our city much safer for all of us.”

Racial Disparities in Enforcement

Over the last decade the council passed measures making penalties for marijuana less punitive. Consequently, over the last several years relatively few people have gone to jail for possessing the herb. But Moreno said continued racial disparities is one of the reasons to remove penalties altogether. 

Data provided at a previous council meeting showed 86% of people getting summons for marijuana possession since 2010 were Black.

Louisiana law is still more harsh than the ordinance that the council passed on Thursday. And city cops can to cite people under state law rather than the New Orleans Code of Ordinances. But even if they do that, Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams has indicated that he will refuse those charges.

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