Louisiana Republican Representative Richard Nelson introduced HB 524 which, if passed and then approved by Louisiana voters, would legalize recreational marijuana in Louisiana.
The ballot measure will require approval by a two-thirds majority in the House, a majority in the Senate, and then the decision will be left up to Louisiana voters who would vote on whether to make recreational use legal in the state on November, 8 2022.
The state will vote on it as a whole, although each individual parish will vote on whether to allow cannabis sales in their parish. Nelson commented, “It would be like alcohol, like dry counties. That was kind of the inspiration for this, there’s places that don’t agree with the sale of alcohol, so they don’t sell alcohol.”
Some may be surprised that a Republican representative introduced a bill to legalize marijuana.
Nelson doesn’t believe that legalizing marijuana strays from the conservative values he ran on. “I believe in things like, you know, limited government, individual liberty, free markets. And I mean, I think this is probably about as clear a case of that…government locking people up for buying and selling a plant is, is kind of one of those kinds of extremities that I think just isn’t really consistent (with) conservative values anyway.”
Nelson has also asserted that marijuana legalization should be a non-partisan issue. “Normally big proponents of this follow a certain stereotype. I’m a conservative from a conservative district who has never smoked marijuana.” explained Nelson, “At the same time, I can see there is bipartisan justification for this policy.”
Interestingly, two of the bills that have done the most in regard to advancing progressive marijuana policies in Louisiana over the last couple of years have been filed by Republican representatives.
In 2020, Larry Badgely authored HB 819 which widened access to medical marijuana in the state so that doctors could recommend it for any medical condition they “consider debilitating to an individual patient” that they think cannabis could help treat.
Badgely explained that medical marijuana legalization should be a non-partisan issue because “I don’t think it’s a party decision, I think it’s about pain management, I think it’s about trying to help the people of the state of Louisiana.”
A recent survey found that two-thirds of Louisianans support marijuana legalization. The poll revealed that marijuana legalization has bi-partisan support with 67% of Democrats, 58% of Republicans, and 81% of respondents with other political affiliations supporting marijuana legalization. Of the 42% of remaining Republican respondents, 24% said they would legalize medical marijuana, 11% said they would make both medical and recreational marijuana completely illegal, and 7% said they were undecided. These results mean that 82% of Louisianan Republican voters were in favor of at least legalizing medical marijuana.
Nelson felt motivated to introduce the bill because “Everyone has been able to see the evidence, they’ve been able to see that there is really more harm in keeping it illegal than legalizing it.”
For a long time, progressives have touted marijuana legalization as a necessary step towards making Louisiana’s criminal justice system more equitable. Old marijuana laws disproportionately affect veterans, individuals with mental health issues, poor communities, and minority communities. Black people in Louisiana are 3.4 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession despite the fact that black and white people use cannabis at the same rate. If the law is clearly not being fairly applied to everyone, why should it be ruining the lives of people incarcerated for marijuana possession?
Legalizing marijuana would also be beneficial for Louisiana’s economy. Nelson believes that legalizing pot could produce hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue for Louisiana in just a few years, tax dollars that could revitalize the state and “would go a long way to improving public safety improving roads, or schools or all those things that, you know, really, I think, for a conservative perspective really makes sense.” Nelson filed other bills proposing a 10% tax on marijuana retail sales and a 5% tax on wholesale sales.
“Right now, all that money is really just going to the drug gangs and the cartels,” Nelson said. “So, you can have the option of eliminating that black market and taxing it to pay for services that people need.”
If this bill isn’t passed, there are currently two other bills filed for this session of Congress that would decriminalize marijuana in Louisiana. In the Louisiana State House, Representative Candace Newell filed HB 243 which will remove the criminal penalties associated with the possession, distribution, or dispensing of marijuana.
In the Louisiana State Senate, Senator Gerald Boudreaux filed SB 107 which would allow Louisiana to remove marijuana from the controlled substance schedule.
Regardless, it’s clear that some marijuana reform is headed for Louisiana, that could affect the state’s tourism industry, economy, healthcare, and criminal justice system, from these trail-blazing legislators.