Bill to lessen crime of marijuana possession backed by liberals, libertarians

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Bernard Noble was visiting his father in New Orleans three and a half years ago when two cops spotted him riding a bicycle. They stopped Noble, frisked him and found a small amount of marijuana — the equivalent of two joints.

Noble, a 47-year-old truck driver and father of three, is now serving a 13-year prison sentence after a jury found him guilty of marijuana possession. It was his seventh drug possession conviction in Orleans and Jefferson Parish.* He originally was sentenced to five years, but Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Jr. appealed and got a longer sentence.

Noble’s case is emblematic of the growing debate over Louisiana’s harsh punishment of marijuana possession – a debate that will get a public hearing Tuesday morning when a Senate judiciary committee hears Senate Bill 323. (Update: After more than three hours of testimony, the bill failed to pass out of committee, killed on a 4-3 vote.)

Sponsored by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, the bill would make possession of marijuana a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison. Under current law, first-time marijuana possession is a misdemeanor; subsequent charges are felonies. The maximum sentence for the third offense is 20 years in prison.

Lawmakers in Louisiana have continued to treat possession of marijuana severely even as their counterparts in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and several other southern states have made it a misdemeanor.

The Drug Policy Alliance, based in New York City, filed a brief Wednesday urging the Louisiana Supreme Court to review Noble’s sentence. “Thirteen years in prison for two joints is obscene,” said Daniel Abrahamson, director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of Legal Affairs, in a news release. “The punishment is so far out of proportion to the conduct that we really can’t call it ‘punishment’ – it is more like torture.”

But Christopher Bowman, an assistant district attorney who is Cannizzaro’s spokesman, said Noble’s October 2010 arrest was his 11th since 1989. Two of those arrests were for both cocaine possession and illegal possession of a firearm. In one of those cases, the district attorney declined to prosecute; in the other, Noble was acquitted.

In 1991, Noble pleaded guilty to marijuana and cocaine possession, and marijuana possession again in 1999. He got short prison sentences each time. In 2003, he was convicted of possessing marijuana and cocaine and was sentenced to two years of home confinement. He pleaded guilty to marijuana possession in 1989, 1993 and 2003 and received suspended sentences each time.*

Noble “has a flagrant disregard for the law,” Bowman said, adding that most offenders charged with felony marijuana possession — like Noble — have lengthy arrest records.

The Legislative Fiscal Office has yet to determine how much Morrell’s bill would save the state. A private report published in February said that 1,367 people were in prison for felony convictions of marijuana possession. Another 4,063 were on parole after serving time for marijuana possession convictions. The total cost to the state: nearly $20 million a year.

That study was done by Gregory Thompson for the Louisiana Sentencing Commission, a 22-member board of lawyers and judges that advises the governor. “Even as a prosecutor, I thought it was an inefficient use of time and resources to prosecute people for marijuana possession,” Thompson, a New Orleans defense attorney who previously worked as an assistant district attorney, said in an interview.

An unusual coalition is backing Morrell’s bill, as well as other measures aimed at reducing Louisiana’s incarceration rate — the highest in the country as a measure of its total population. The coalition includes prominent New Orleans business leaders, faith-based groups such as the Micah Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the libertarian think tank Pelican Institute for Public Policy.

Morrell, D-New Orleans, is an attorney who handles real estate and civil defense cases for small businesses. He handled many misdemeanor drug cases for nearly two years as a public defender in magistrate court.

“We should reserve jail time for those who distribute drugs, those who are violent criminals or those who do things that cause injury or lasting damage,” Morrell said.

Reflecting the range of support behind the bill, its co-sponsor is state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, who represents a largely rural district in northwest Louisiana. Adley has been tagged as the face of Big Oil for his efforts to kill a lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East against 97 oil and gas companies.

Referring to Morrell’s bill and the state’s budget problems, Adley said, “We can’t fill up the jails on simple possession charges. We don’t have the money to keep them.”

Adley said that smoking marijuana as a Marine courier in Vietnam during the 1960s has led him to conclude that the dangers of the drug are overhyped. “People were better off smoking it than drinking alcohol,” he said. “They just got the giggles. The more whiskey they drank, the meaner they got.”

State Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, chairs the judiciary committee hearing the bill. He ardently opposes Morrell’s bill based on the same law-and-order arguments that have led to the state’s tough sentences. “If you do the crime, you do the time,” said Kostelka. “The bill is a step toward legalizing marijuana.”

Kostelka served eight years as a district attorney and 20 years as a judge. Like Bowman, Kostelka argued that those imprisoned for felony marijuana possession are typically bad apples who have been arrested multiple times.

Joining Kostelka in opposition is the politically powerful Louisiana District Attorney Association. Executive Director Pete Adams said DAs need to be able to press felony charges in case they want to negotiate a guilty plea for a misdemeanor.

“The bill takes discretion away from DAs,” Adams said. “Casual users rarely spend time in jail,” he added.

Another powerful interest group in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, is also expected to oppose Morrell’s bill. Michael Ranatza, the group’s executive director, did not return a phone call.

His organization opposed HB 14 by state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, which would have kept marijuana possession a felony but reduced the sentences. After the sheriffs opposed it, Badon voluntarily deferred the bill, meaning he could resurrect it later.

The coalition backing Morrell’s bill opposed Badon’s, arguing that it didn’t go far enough and that support for it could undercut their efforts.

A June 2013 report by the Louisiana chapter of the ACLU found that the state spent $46.4 million enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010. It also found that African-Americans were three times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.

“There is a crisis in our criminal justice system, and this [Morrell’s bill] is one way to relieve a significant amount of this crisis,” Marjorie Esman, the executive director of the ACLU in Louisiana, said in an interview.

“Having among the harshest sentences in the country has not discouraged marijuana use in Louisiana,” she said. “And there’s no evidence that the reduced sentences in other states have led to increased marijuana use there.”

Kevin Kane, president of the Pelican Institute, said that along with keeping most marijuana users out of prison, the state Legislature should boost spending on drug treatment, as Texas has done.

That should have been the approach with Noble, said Daniel Schwartz, the Micah Project’s executive director. “He perhaps has a drug problem,” Schwartz said. “Maybe he needs treatment. But it flies in the face of logic to put him away for 13 years.”

*Corrections: This story originally stated that Noble had been convicted five times for drug possession, but the correct number is seven. The original story omitted a 2003 conviction in Jefferson Parish for cocaine and marijuana possession, for which Noble was sentenced to home confinement, and one in 2003 in Orleans Parish for marijuana possession, for which he received a suspended sentence. (April 21, 2014)

This story was updated after publication to note that the story failed to pass out of committee. (April 22, 2014)

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