Criminal Justice

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

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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About Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism. Prior to that, he spent 13 years as a reporter for the Miami Herald, where he was twice a member of Pulitzer Prize-winning teams while covering state government, the city of Miami and national politics. He also was a foreign correspondent based in South America. Before the Herald, he covered politics for seven years at The Times-Picayune. He is the author of The Rise of David Duke (1994) and Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards (2001). He can be reached at (504) 810-6222.

  • claygooding

    There is a disconnect in the author’s mind,if he thinks only libertarians and liberals support marijuana reform,,those 750,000 marijuana arrests every year would have wiped out the Libertarian party if all Democrats and Republicans were not smoking it also,,and 80% of college graduates have smoked marijuana so quit denying support from any political party,,,the only people against legalization are the people making money from the continued prohibition of marijuana(legislators through election funding and law enforcement for grant money),,,follow the money.

  • Steve Myers

    I wrote the headline; it’s intended to show the coalition of support behind this bill.

  • Impasto

    I find this article very disturbing. How can a state that makes so much money off of alcohol, be so hypocritical in regards to simple marijuana possession? Wait, I think I just answered my own question. The alcohol companies, as well as the infamous cops who lurk along the highways waiting to trump up some BS charge, so they can search, and then seize. Deplorable.

  • It flies in the face of logic to imprison someone for possession or use of marijuana. The costs to society are out of proportion to any imagined benefits from marijuana prohibition. A bill to lesson marijuana possession as a crime is a step in a positive direction, but doesn’t cure the problem. Allowing law enforcement to enrich themselves on marijuana prohibition is a mistake of large proportion.

  • nickelndime

    Mary Jane is the new new tobacco. Oh, geeze louise, this state is so far behind!
    The ones (d/b/a Government, et al.) with money are not smoking Mary Jane, 4gawdsake. They are on the hard stuff, Man. COCAINE – “If you want to take HER out, Cocaine” (Eric Clapton). HEROIN… Man, these legislators (and the Police) is a trip – a BAD TRIP!

  • Tim9lives

    Maybe when some of the large conventions start to cancel engagements in New Orleans those in power will finally wake up. It always gets back to money.
    When it starts to hit them in the pocket-book….that’s when they scramble to make changes.

  • Immortal Illumined

    the greatest plant in the universe is almost free, LET FREEDOM RING! 13

    “any doctor against marijuana is a doctor of death” – cali secret 420

    from 0 states to half the country, from low 20% approval to almost 70%, cali runs this planet by 2 decades, time to tie marijuana to the 2014, 2016 elections, out with the old, in with the new

    20 years behind us southern states, sad and scary….nobody denies freedoms like the south, nobody…the top ten incarcerators on the planet are southern states…even if marijuana reforms did pass the republiCANTS in charge would deny you all your freedoms, centuries of practice…no matter though, we never planned on getting your backwards brethren from day one, half the country already but not one southern state, lol…not 1….the new generations are taking over in the south and they are nothing like their freedom denying parents, let’s ride…

    Deaths by Alcohol and Tobacco: Millions
    Deaths by Prescription Drugs: Quadrupled in last decade
    Deaths by Guns: Millions
    Deaths by the food we are fed: Millions
    Deaths by Marijuana: 0, ever…they are killing my American family while denying freedom

    love and freedom forever


  • Immortal Illumined

    20 years behind us Louisiana, lol…freedom? more like nazi….toughest marijuana laws in the country

  • Immortal Illumined

    according to the polls, Republicans oppose marijuana at a 60% clip……every other demographic supports it, by a lot, the #1 reason the republicants won’t win the white house

  • Immortal Illumined


  • Tim9lives

    Yea…I thought about the same thing also.
    I have always wondered about the Alcohol Lobby’s position on Marijuana Legalization.

  • Deaths by Alcohol and Tobacco: Millions
    Deaths by Prescription Drugs: Quadrupled in last decade
    Deaths by Guns: Millions
    Deaths by the food we are fed: Millions
    Deaths by Marijuana: 0,

    Notice how you mention MILLIONS of Deaths by Alcohol and Tobacco which are LEGAL.
    Notice how you mention 4x increase in Death by prescription drugs which are LEGAL.
    Notice how you say Marijuana Deaths are ZERO which is ILLEGAL

    YET, are you saying you want Marijuana to end up LEGAL and more accessible and have MILLIONS of DEATHS or 4x increase in Deaths like Alcohol and prescription drugs?

    In other words, you want the same law and accessibility for Marijuana as Alcohol and Prescription drugs but have forgotten to see the deaths that have went along legalization and more accessibility?

  • You know why Louisiana is really behind every other state?
    It’s not because of lack or weed.
    It’s because the 24/7 alcohol and public intoxication “free lunch” culture.

  • 80% of college graduates have smoked marijuana…

    And can you tell me why can’t college graduates get jobs?
    And can you tell me why America has loss its competitive edge?
    Is it because these college graduates are weed heads and can’t mentally compete?

  • The large conventions have long ago already cancelled engagement to NOLA from the 10x murder and crime rate…that is greatly due to the 24/7 alcohol and public intoxication “free lunch” culture of NOLA seen with the gutter punks in the French Gutter and homeless and panhandlers at most of the major intersections in NOLA.

    This “gutter” culture is seen by all the CORPORATE EXECUTIVES who already crossed NOLA off their future list of convention sites because of the “gutter and drug” atmosphere.

    The tourism numbers already show that years ago as the percentage of the 9 million visitors for conventions is very low, less than 15% (see the BAR GRAPH referenced below, Page 12, Figure 9 of the Louisiana Tourism Forecase 2009-2013)

    Louisiana Tourism Forecast 2009-2013
    Page 12, Figure 9.

    From the bar chart on Figure 9:
    1. VFR = VISITING FRIENDS and RELATIVES at around 30-35%
    2. Entertainment and Sightseeing is around 20%
    3. Convention and Conference is around 10%

    Is “VFR” very high cause Louisiana doesn’t have good jobs so these “tourists” left Louisiana and New Orleans? Yes.
    Hence, VFR is probably NOT spending like a Tourist cause they already have what they need.

    Lakeside Shopping Center has 10 million visitors
    (the $13B mentioned at URL below is still up for discussion and needs more clarification)

    more discussion here

    “Visitors” are NOT necessarily “Tourists” that actually spend $100/day. Visitors can be VFR, Visiting Friends and Relatives, big difference.

  • truth?

    Well than, SHOW ME THE MONEY from ALCOHOL?
    And show me how NOLA has positively benefited of the last 150 years of Bourbon St?

  • claygooding

    If yoiu don’t know anymore about today’s economy and the unemployment rates plus why we got here,,to educate you is not worth my time. Keep and feed your hatred for marijuana and it’s users.

  • Many college graduates take stuff that is not STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), which is already hard stuff to learn and smoking WEED doesn’t make learning STEM any easier.

  • claygooding

    It is not that much of a factor for some people,,Carl Sagan did his best work smoking marijuana,,of course there is such a thing as too much,,it is learning stoned that expands your mind,,you should try it sometime,,not wasted,,just a toke or two,

  • Aren’t American Bl?cks really big POT heads? If so, why is the vast majority so screwed up, can’t get or hold a job, wear their pants on the ground, hoodies in 95 degree heat, and don’t even know who their father is? In fact, many are functionally illiterate. Just look at City Hall, 30% are taking remedial courses.

  • nickelndime

    “LET’S ALL GET STONED”: If Carl Sagan did his best work while getting stoned…and Edgar Allen Poe did his best work while stoned (Ha!) …and this list goes on and on and on…(what actually were the great ones on? Nostradamus, for example – a “trance” – well, yeah, that’s a good one). Then, to requote a song lyric, I say, “Let’s all get stoned.” Just don’t do it in Louisiana. Last when it should be first! First when it should be last! ###!