BATON ROUGE, LA — In a state with a reputation for having some of the harshest marijuana laws in the country, an amended version of a bill that would reduce mandatory minimum penalties for repeat marijuana possession offenses was approved by the Louisiana House on Wednesday.
The bill now heads to the Senate with just over a week left in the 2013 legislative session.
Current law requires a third or subsequent conviction of marijuana possession to be punished by up to 20 years in prison. This felony conviction is often used to enhance the prison sentence when the offender has at least two other felony convictions. For first time offenders, possession of less than 60 pounds of marijuana is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and/or up to 6 months of imprisonment.
House Bill 103, sponsored by Rep. Austin J. Badon, Jr. (D-New Orleans), would reduce jail time to not more than two years for the second marijuana possession offense, five years for third-time offenders and eight years for those convicted four or more times. The maximum fine for possession would also be lessened from $5,000 to $2,500.
The original version of the bill included lesser penalties of one, two and five years respectively, but failed on the House floor last week.
The original proposal sought to lower the maximum penalty for a second marijuana possession offense from five years imprisonment to no more than one-year. It would have lowered the maximum penalty for a subsequent marijuana conviction from 20-years imprisonment to no more than two-years.
After Rep. Badon amended the bill to increase the possible jail time for repeat offenders, the bill was very narrowly approved Wednesday by a vote of 54-38, just one more vote than necessary for passage.
Last month, the House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice voted 14-0 to approve the bill, but not before the committee tweaked the habitual offender language to mandate that all of the felonies would have to involve marijuana possession to qualify for the reduced sentences.
Under present law, Louisiana’s penalties for marijuana offenses are among the toughest in the nation. For first offenders, possession of less than 60 pounds of marijuana is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and/or up to 6 months of imprisonment. Second offenses are punishable by a fine of $250-$2500 and/or up to 5 years of imprisonment.
Both first and second offenders may be eligible for probation, which will include 32 hours of community service and a substance abuse program, the cost of probation will be paid by the defendant.
Third and subsequent offenses are punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and/or up to 20 years of imprisonment.
Distribution or cultivation of marijuana is punishable by a fine of up to $50,000 and 5-30 years of imprisonment. Subsequent offenses are punishable by 10-60 years of imprisonment and a fine of up to $100,000.
Prior offenses include any drug crime convictions, no matter where they occurred.