NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Some say Louisiana's marijuana laws are not keeping pace with neighboring states, and because of that the state is spending millions to jail low-level offenders.
And a local state lawmaker wants to change that. It's an issue that prompted a lot of debate in the city Thursday.
"Under current Louisiana law, a second possession of marijuana is punishable in jail by eight years, in jail as a felony. A third possession of marijuana is punishable in this state by up to 20 years in jail. That is completely Draconian, and basically insane," said State Senator J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans.
Morrell said he is filing a bill Friday for the upcoming session aimed at changing the state's marijuana statute.
"With a bill that would carve out possession of a personal amount, which in the national model is about an ounce, or a joint or two, that would be a permanent misdemeanor. So individuals picked up with possession of marijuana - first, second or third - would be a scaled misdemeanor which would never reach that felony provision," Morrell said.
Louisiana's marijuana laws were the subject of a panel discussion at Dillard University. It was one segment of a daylong conference on drug policies. U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite addressed the gathering. He spoke of how federal prosecutors are now focusing on serious offenders.
"Last year, just so you understand at the federal level in this district, we prosecuted exactly zero cases that involved marijuana as the top charge. Again, our priority in this district is on violent crime," he said.
Still, at the state level, prosecutors must enforce existing drug laws, regardless of critics.
"When you're talking about personal use, to make any of that a felony is just outrageous," said New Orleans City Councilman Susan Guidry.
"There are people in Louisiana prisons who are doing life because of a history of non-violent offenses - but still felonies - one of which is a marijuana offense," said Marjorie Esman of the ACLU of Louisiana.
Morrell said Louisiana spends $20 million a year to imprison marijuana law breakers. He said that money could be better used in a state with serious money problems.
Kevin Kane, President of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy said whether the law is too harsh or too lenient is very subjective.
"These things are not always black and white. There are sort of important ethical and moral questions underlying these issues," Kane said.
A portion of the discussion focused on disparities in marijuana arrests. Guidry said in the city, it is a serious problem.
"Ninety-three percent of all persons arrested for felony marijuana charges since 2011 in New Orleans were African American - 93 percent," Guidry said.
But some on the panel said that argument likely would not be enough to get the Legislature to change the law.
"The reality is there's simply no way to scientifically prove how race factors into law enforcement and outcomes," Kane said. "You can say as a general thing that race is a factor, but you cannot demonstrate, you can't say that race accounts for this percentage of the incarceration rate. We just don't know. There's no way to get inside someone's head to know how did race factor into their decision to pull this guy over."
"If you go to the Legislature and you make an argument of the law purely based upon racial disparity - as much as I agree with you, people up here may agree with you - the bill's not going to pass," Morrell said.
He said Louisiana is behind in addressing issues with its drug policy.
"When you look at our neighboring states - Texas, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi - possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor. Now no one has ever accused Texas of being soft on crime," Morrell said.
"We did a chart on this last year comparing us to Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina. I mean, we're way out of whack," Kane said. "Those states that I just mentioned are not being overrun by criminals high on marijuana."
Still, some consider marijuana to be a gateway substance to more serious drugs.
We reached out to New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzarro for comment, but his spokesman said they had not reviewed all of the bills relating to marijuana for the upcoming legislative session, and that there would be no comment, at this time.