Louisiana lawmakers have proposed a bill that would allow cops to send children and teens to jail for smoking weed, even though adults are allowed to get high without risk of prison time.
Last year, Louisiana passed a law to decriminalize minor cannabis possession, reducing the penalty for possessing up to 14 grams of bud to a $100 fine, with no chance of jail time. And although it's a far cry from full legalization, the law also prevents cops from imposing additional fines or prison time for repeat offenders who are caught with weed on multiple occasions.
But as is often the case in conservative states, lawmakers are always brainstorming new schemes to re-criminalize weed. This time, Republican legislators are proposing a bill that would reinstate prison time for cannabis possession, but only for kids under the age of 18. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Larry Bagley, would allow cops to send minors caught with 14 or fewer grams of weed to jail for up to 15 days.
The proposal would also reinstate the repeat offender provisions of Louisiana's previous cannabis prohibition law. A minor caught with weed on three separate occasions could face two years in prison, and a fourth offense could bring four years of prison time. These penalties still only apply to minors though, so an 18-year-old that got caught with weed a hundred times would not face jail time, while a younger sibling could potentially spend the rest of their childhood in prison.
Bagley said that he proposed the bill because public K-12 schools are struggling to keep weed off-campus. Before the current decriminalization law passed, state prosecutors often used the threat of prison time to force teens caught with weed to enter drug treatment programs. Now that the threat of prison time is gone, prosecutors no longer have the leverage to do so.
Proponents of the bill argue that local judges would never actually sentence kids to prison, but would just use it to scare minors into entering rehab programs. “We are trying to rehabilitate children,” said state Rep. Nicholas Muscarello (R), to the Louisiana Illuminator. “This allows our courts to kind of keep them in check and put them in drug courts... No judge is putting a kid in jail for six months for marijuana.”
Liberal lawmakers are obviously less enthusiastic about walking back the state's progressive new decriminalization law. Existing laws still allow family court judges to force children into drug treatment programs and put them on probation. Advocates have also suggested that schools could keep weed off-campus by suspending, expelling, or revoking sports privileges from kids caught with pot at school.
“We don’t think we should be criminalizing youth more harshly than adults,” said Peter Robins-Brown, executive director of advocacy group Louisiana Progress, to the Illuminator.
Other lawmakers and advocates are questioning the logic of imposing more extreme penalties for pot possession than on underage drinking or smoking. Underage drinkers can be fined up to $100 and have their driver's license suspended for six months, but they do not face jail time. And minors caught with addictive, cancer-causing cigarettes can only be fined up to $50.
“Alcohol, in my opinion, would be greatly more harmful than marijuana,” state Rep. Danny McCormick (R) told the Louisiana Illuminator.
The House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice approved the bill last week after first amending it to protect children who are legally using medical marijuana from punishment. In order to pass, the bill must still be approved by the full house, senate, and governor, but there is no clear indication of whether it has enough support to actually become law.