Unless someone has been living in a dark cave for the last 6 months, Louisiana’s budget crisis should be old news; reduced state revenues due to lower oil/gas prices and layoffs in the oil patch have certainly contributed to more concerns than happiness over lower gas prices at the pump. Suddenly state legislators are NOT having fun being public officials and the upcoming legislative session is something to be dreaded versus the usual Baton Rouge party at taxpayers expense. To date all the headlines deal with what state agencies will be slashed and how much-but no ideas on more revenues since presidential hopeful Governor Jindal has adamantly said ‘NO” to any new taxes.
No one can question the fact that Louisiana needs new sources of revenues in a big way; one quick way to increase state revenue coffers and decrease state and local expenditures is to legalize marijuana. YES, legalize marijuana. Its really a no brainer to those who follow what other states are doing and keep up with the heavy load marijuana arrests, trials and convictions place on law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Louisiana law provides that simple possession, first offense, is a misdemeanor—provided the quantity is an ounce or less. Many offenders qualify for a drug diversion program and it completed, the charge is dropped. In the alternate an offender can be fined a maximum of $500, imprisoned for 6 months or both. If placed on probation, the minimum conditions are participation in a court-approved substance abuse program and 4 eight-hour days of community service. Conviction of a second offense of possession is a felony and it carries a maximum fine of $2000 and jail time up to 5 years.
Time did not allow research on the number of marijuana arrests in Caddo and Bossier parishes during 2014 and the number of convictions including drug diversions during that interval. A large number of individuals charged with marijuana offenses can not afford attorneys and thus they are represented by the parish public defender offices which are facing budget cutbacks. The total costs to arrest, take to trial, and defend these offenders are staggering and perhaps misplaced when considering the needs of law enforcement in dealing with more serious offenses.
So, if marijuana legalization is viable budget revenue item to consider, how should Louisiana go about this process? Two options can be considered—the State be the seller of the product or private businesses. In the first instance, the obvious question is who is to cultivate the product to be sold by the state? Should state agents/employees also GROW marijuana or just purchase it in bulk for re-sale? And if the purchase option is followed, should Louisiana residents be licensed to grow marijuana for sale only to the state, or should Louisiana just buy marijuana from overseas sources?
The last thing Louisiana needs is more state agencies and employees, so the licensing of private individuals to both grow and sell marijuana. which is what other states have done, is probably the best approach. Currently the states of Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon have legalized the recreational use of marijuana without the requirement of a prescription from a doctor; the District of Columbia has also recently legalized marijuana. In Vermont the governor and state lawmakers have commissioned RAND Corp. to check out the impact of marijuana legalization which is expected to create a tourism boom just like in Colorado.
In 2015 legal marijuana was a $700 million dollar industry in Colorado; retailers sold $386 million of medical marijuana and $313 million for purely recreational use. These two segments of the market generated $63 million in tax revenue with an additional $13 million collected in licenses and taxes. The total economic impact of the state’s marijuana industry is greater, since these numbers do not include retail sales of products related to marijuana, like pipes and bongs; Colorado also had increased tourist spending for hotels and restaurants and the like. Additionally sales of products needed to GROW marijuana had a large economic impact as well as additional tax revenues—think potting soil, fertilizer, florescent lightings, construction materials on hothouses, etc.
Twenty three states, which include the 4 allowing recreational marijuana, have approved medical marijuana laws allowing limited use; Louisiana is NOT one of these states. Some of the medical marijuana laws are broader than others, with types of medical conditions that allow for treatment varying from state to state. Medical marijuana sales generate tax dollars, both in sales taxes as well as licensing. If Louisiana wanted to put a toe in the legal marijuana pool, medical marijuana legalization provides for that opportunity; legislation has been pre-filled to allow the sale of medical marijuana in the upcoming session. Currently the closest states for the purchase of medical marijuana are New Mexico and Illinois—but the USE here in Louisiana would be illegal.
Sooo…Louisiana legislators DO have some options to alleviate the drastic budget cuts that the Jindal administration has predicted. The legalization of marijuana would generate much needed income and reduce many costs in the law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system. Last year Sheriffs and District Attorneys successfully stonewalled efforts to legalize medical marijuana, and it can be expected they will again oppose the proposed legalization. Who knows, marijuana legalization could just drop Louisiana out of the number 1 category for most jailed inmates in proportion to population.