NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson speaks at a press conference at police headquarters on June 18, 2020. (Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens)

After decades of responding to possession of marijuana with arrests or summonses that led to prosecutions, jail time, and fines for thousands of citizens, the New Orleans Police Department’s enforcement of simple possession laws “virtually vanished” in 2022, according to a recent analysis that shows enforcement is down 97 percent compared to last year. 

The dramatic decline in enforcement this year is not unexpected. The New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance last year attempting to remove all penalties for simple possession, and NOPD subsequently updated its policy early this year to say that they would no longer issue any summonses for simple possession of marijuana. (The department already had a policy in place that they would not make arrests related to the charge.)

A table from Asher’s report showing yearly arrests and summons for simple possession of marijuana in New Orleans.

Still, despite NOPD’s new policy, data compiled by City Council crime analyst Jeff Asher suggests there has still been occasional enforcement in the city. Through September of this year there has been one arrest and seven summonses issued for simple possession of marijuana, according to the report. The penalties in city law are a $40 fine for a first offense, and not more than $100 for subsequent offenses — though under the Council ordinance last year those charges should be immediately pardoned. 

The single arrest in Asher’s report was made not by NOPD, but the Harbor Police Department. A spokesperson for the department, Kimberly Curth, told The Lens in an email that it “was not just a simple possession of marijuana arrest, but a totality of circumstances” after the department observed someone stopped on some railroad tracks. 

“Upon further investigation, the subject was arrested after it was discovered he had a suspended driver’s license, no insurance, and 6 individual bags of marijuana,” Curth said. She added that the individual had also been cited for the suspended license and lack of insurance. 

NOPD did not respond to questions regarding the seven summonses.

The report shows that enforcement numbers are negligible compared to prior years, however.  The combined arrest and summons data in 2022 shows a 97 percent decrease in enforcement compared with the first nine months of 2021, and a 99.5 percent decrease compared with the first nine months of 2019, according to the report. That year there were over two thousand citations issued, along with 37 arrests. 

Last year, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance intended to effectively remove all penalties for simple possession of marijuana in the city, in part due to the fact that there was a startling racial disparity in how they were handed out. A prior analysis by Asher showed that in the last decade, around 85 percent of all summonses that were issued in the last decade were given to Black residents. 

But rather than removing the city law that penalizes marijuana possession, the City Council instead passed an ordinance in August of 2021 that granted “prospective pardons” for anyone who is cited for the offense. Because there is still a state law on the books, the Council argued that the pardon route was more effective at ending enforcement than taking the municipal law off the books altogether.

But months after the ordinance passed, The Lens reported in January that NOPD was still issuing citations for the offense, and dozens of people were being forced to appear in court on simple possession charges that were supposed to be immediately pardoned. The continued enforcement by police drew criticism from City Council President Helena Moreno, who sponsored the pardon ordinance, along with defense attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates. 

The same day the story was published, NOPD announced a new policy that they would no longer issue citations at all.

This week, Moreno applauded NOPD for the dramatically reduced enforcement numbers. 

“After needing some early encouragement, I’m pleased to see that NOPD has finally come into conformance with the city laws we passed,” she said in a statement. 

A graph from Asher’s report showing arrests and summons rolling over 6 months for simple possession of marijuana in New Orleans.

According to Asher’s analysis, recent shifts marijuana enforcement have coincided with several City Council measures that expanded use of summonses in lieu of arrests in 2010 and 2016, and reduced penalties. In 2010 nearly 800 arrests were made for the misdemeanor offense, but that dropped off dramatically the following year, and since 2014 there have been less than 100 annually. Summonses, on the other hand, increased dramatically as arrests have dropped — peaking in 2018 with over 2,300. 

Statewide, simple marijuana possession was decriminalized last year, removing the possibility of the jail time for the offense.

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...