“We don’t think we should be criminalizing youth more harshly than adults.”
By Julie O’Donoghue, Louisiana Illuminator
Louisiana lawmakers may put incarceration back on the table for possession of modest amounts of marijuana, but only for children and teenagers under age 18. Adults would still be able to avoid prison time if caught with marijuana joints, even for repeat offenses.
Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, is seeking to modify the state’s sweeping marijuana decriminalization law that was enacted last year. House Bill 700 would impose harsher penalties on children and teenagers than adults.
Under the new law passed last year, a person convicted of possessing 14 grams or less of marijuana in Louisiana cannot be fined more than $100, arrested or thrown in prison. Bagley’s proposal would allow a person under 18 convicted of possessing 14 grams or less of marijuana once to be incarcerated for up to 15 days.
The legislation would also escalate the penalties for minors who are repeatedly caught with up to 14 grams of marijuana, which is the equivalent of 14 to 25 joints. A third conviction for that offense could result in two years behind bars, and a fourth could mean four years of lockup.
Those penalties would be dramatically different than the ones adults face. Under Bagley’s bill, people over 18 years old could still be caught repeatedly with 14 grams or less of marijuana and face no prison time at all.
The House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice forwarded Bagley’s proposal to the full Louisiana House for consideration last week after an exception was carved out for children and teenagers carrying their own medical marijuana.
Bagley said the law change is needed because K-12 schools in his community are unable to keep marijuana off their campuses. The district attorney’s office in DeSoto Parish, where Bagley lives, said it has no way of forcing minors into drug treatment through drug court without the threat of incarceration.
It would be highly unlikely for a judge to put a child or teenager in a youth detention center for possession of a small amount of marijuana, Bagley said, but he believes the possibility of incarceration can be used to push them into rehabilitative programs.
“It was presented like this bill is about trying to put people in prison. It’s not,” he said.
Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, who has generally supported loosening marijuana restrictions, agreed with Bagley and said laws around minors’ marijuana use needed to be tighter.
“We are trying to rehabilitate children. This allows our courts to kind of keep them in check and put them in drug courts,” said Muscarello, R-Hammond. “No judge is putting a kid in jail for six months for marijuana.”
Left-leaning groups and marijuana legalization advocacy organizations opposed the legislation. They suggested discipline within the school system—such as suspension, expulsion or removal from sports teams and other school activities—be used to help keep marijuana off campus.
“We don’t think we should be criminalizing youth more harshly than adults,” said Peter Robins-Brown, executive director of Louisiana Progress.
— Louisiana Progress (@LAProgressAct) March 23, 2022
Other methods to get children and teenagers into drug treatment are available through the court system as well, said Megan Garvey with the Louisiana Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers. Family court judges can mandate that guardians and parents put children in rehabilitative programs and place minors on probation, she said.
Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, didn’t formally object to the bill moving forward in the legislative process, but he expressed reservations about the incarceration component. He questioned why the offense for being caught with marijuana as a minor would be harsher than the one for being caught with alcohol.
People under the age of 21 can be fined $100 and lose their driver’s license for up to six months if they are caught drinking alcohol, according to Louisiana law, but they don’t face jail time. Minors caught with cigarettes can be fined up to $50.
“Alcohol, in my opinion, would be greatly more harmful than marijuana,” he said.