Fewer people caught with marijuana in New Orleans will end up in jail after the City Council on Thursday approved an ordinance that gives police even more leeway to issue summonses that will result in small fines instead of making arrests.
Penalties for being caught with pot ignited strong opinions at City Hall.
"These prosecutions are inhumane, wasteful and a stain on our communal soul," said Kevin Caldwell of the group CommonSense NOLA.
But opponents cautioned the council during the public hearing portion of the meeting.
"The reason that marijuana is illegal and is rated as a Schedule I drug by the federal government is that it is a harmful mind-altering drug," said Stephanie Haynes of Greater New Orleans Drug Demand Reduction Coalition.
The ordinance was sponsored by council members Susan Guidry and Jason Williams.
"I want to stress that this is not a decriminalization. State law makes the determination that the possession of marijuana is a crime," said Guidry.
Since 2010, New Orleans police have been able to issue summons for simple possession of marijuana instead of making arrests for a first offense. As part of the ordinance, the fine for a first conviction will be $40, $60 for a second, $80 for a third and for a fourth conviction $100.
"It is making these possessions a misdemeanor with the fine as the penalty," said Guidry.
After lengthy discussion, the council vote was unanimous. Police will still have the option of arresting someone caught with pot under the tougher state law.
"Our hope with this is that fewer people will be brought to jail and that fewer people will have their lives disrupted with this charge," said Guidry.
Williams said it will free up police to focus on other crimes.
"Because of a lack of police officers I think this makes good fiscal sense," he said.
The Landrieu administration was on board.
"Legally we have no opposition to this ordinance," said City Attorney Rebecca Dietz.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro was present for the discussion happened, but he did not speak or take a position.
"I think this does not really change the law. We were instrumental several years ago of trying to make marijuana a summons-able offense which is prosecuted in the Municipal Court where it is right now," he said.
"This ordinance in effect does legalize marijuana because it sends the message that it's no big deal," Haynes said.
The change in the city's law will not affect juveniles who are caught with marijuana.