Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

In 2008, around 1,500 people in New Orleans were taken to jail for possession of small amounts of marijuana. But after a decade of work by the New Orleans City Council to encourage police to divert resources away from marijuana enforcement, that number was down to 39 in 2019, and 22 in 2020. 

Still, at a Monday meeting of the City Council’s criminal justice Committee, some members expressed frustration that people were still being arrested at all for marijuana possession —  along with ongoing racial disparities in both arrests and citations. 

“I don’t think that anyone … for simple possession of marijuana should be put in jail at all,” said Council President Helena Moreno. “So let me just make my position clear on that.”

The council voted in 2010 to make simple possession a municipal offense. Previously it could only be charged as a crime under state law. That gave police the option to issue a summons in lieu of arrest for a first offense of possession of marijuana. Then, in 2016, it voted to soften penalties for subsequent possession charges as well. The New Orleans Police Department still has the ability to charge the offense under state law, however, and to make arrests. 

But New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said at the meeting that there was a “strict policy” in the department for officers to issue a summons in lieu of an arrest for possession of marijuana charges. Sometimes, however, he said there could be “some other nexus or issue that has led the officer to have the effect of physical arrest.”

A spokesperson for NOPD did not respond to request for comment on what exactly those circumstances might be. 

Crime data analyst Jeff Asher told council members that there were no other charges in addition to marijuana for those individuals who got arrested. 

“It’s hard to say what happened in those 22 cases in 2020,” he said.  “There were no other charges associated with them. But it’s unclear why they were arrested. … There really shouldn’t be any criminal arrests for marijuana”

The people who were arrested in recent years for possession of marijuana typically had to sit in jail for several days. In 2019, the average length of stay was 10 days, according to data from Asher. In 2020, it was four. 

“Four days in jail for simple possession? 10 days in jail for simple possession?” Moreno said. “I mean, I get it that we’re talking about dozens of people here, but that’s dozens of people who can lose their job.”

Moreno also expressed concerns about the racial disparities in both arrests and summonses for marijuana possession. According to data presented by Asher, about 80 percent of those arrested for the charge over the past 12 years have been Black males, and around 70 percent of the citations given were to Black males. 

“Certainly, that doesn’t make sense,” Moreno said. “Because if you take a look at any study that shows that people who are using marijuana for recreational purposes are split evenly, you know, between white and Black and others.”

The council does not have the authority to legalize marijuana altogether, due to state law. But Moreno said she thought there were more steps they could take to  — such as making sure police aren’t using the smell of marijuana as a pretext to perform searches, removing barriers to employment for people who use the substance, and reducing fines for possession to as low as $1. (Currently the fine for a first possession offense is $40.) 

Meanwhile, Asher said, many people have stopped paying fines for possession of marijuana. In 2020, nearly 60 percent of people failed to appear for their court date or pay their fine.  Asher said he thought the numbers highlighted that marijuana enforcement is “becoming less and less of an effective policy.”

“I wish I could legalize,” Moreno said. “If I could legalize on the local level recreational marijuana, I would do it. But every legal expert lawyer, including our own, told me that it can’t be done. We have to wait for the state to do that.”

Currently, there is a bill in the state legislature that would set up a referendum asking voters to decide if recreational marijuana should be legal in Louisiana. It is scheduled for committee debate on Tuesday. 

Marijuana arrests are not the only drug-related arrests that have decreased recently. Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams, who has made the decision to refuse most low-level drug charges, said at the meeting that arrests for all drug possession have declined since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic — from between 100 and 150 a month, to around 50 or less. 

“And of course, we wholeheartedly support the chief…in the evolution of their practices,” Williams said.

Ferguson has said that the department will continue to make drug possession arrests despite the DA’s policy of refusing them.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...