NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Marijuana reform is igniting a new controversy in Orleans Parish after a committee approved a proposal that would lighten the penalty for first- and second-time offenders.
"The guy who is smoking marijuana in his house, nobody is concerned if he gets arrested or not. That's not anyone's issue here," Councilman Jason Williams said.
On Wednesday, Councilwoman Susan Guidry proposed a change to the city's marijuana laws, and the Criminal Justice Committee approved it.
"The first two times is a warning. A verbal warning the first time, it's written on the field information card and recorded that way. The second time a written warning that tells the person that the next time they will be summons to court and a chance of a penalty," Guidry said.
The proposed ordinance would give officers discretion on whether to issue a warning or arrest someone in possession of marijuana.
Williams believes the measure would free up police and create much needed space in parish prison.
"New Orleans has one of the highest incarceration rates with still rising violent crime rates. Our plan over the past few decades hasn't worked. It's time to rethink that and that's exactly what we did today," Williams said. "We've got limited police officers. I don't want them chasing down someone with a joint. I want them chasing someone down with a gun."
But some people fear the proposal could create a problem.
"I have a real issue with a patrol officer being judge, juror and executioner," former State Representative for Orleans Parish Austin Badon said.
Badon was instrumental in softening simple marijuana laws at the state level, but he is concerned about the possible change in Orleans Parish.
"Are they going to treat a student that they pull over who attends SUNO the same as they treat a student that attends Loyola or Tulane?" Badon asked. "It opens up a whole Pandora's box that we just don't have the time for and don't want to open."
The scope of simple possession is large. Anyone caught with the smallest amount of marijuana to anything less than 60 pounds could be equally charged with simple possession.
If someone is found with marijuana in that range but also is found with baggies or a scale, then the offender could be charged with a felony, Badon said.
"If you pull somebody over for marijuana and just give them a warning, what happens to the drug? You don't allow them to drive off and keep the drug. What happens to it? There still has to be some kind of chain of command," Badon said.
"We're not ready to talk about that because the talks are still ongoing," NOPD Chief Michael Harrison said after Wednesday's meeting.
Guidry and the department are still working on the how the possible ordinance would be enforced, she said.
"We have some issues to work out with the warning. It has to come up on the officers' laptops in the cars and we're not sure how that would work yet," Guidry said.
Guidry said offenders believed to be selling drugs would not get a warning.
The proposal will be discussed in front of the full council during a meeting next month.