Black people are far more likely to be arrested or fined for simple pot possession in New Orleans than other residents, an analysis released Monday shows.
That research has the New Orleans City Council considering whether to drop fines associated with marijuana use to as low as one dollar per offense and to take other steps to decriminalize the drug in the city, members said during a committee meeting.
The moves would be in line with steps by the council in recent years to end harsh penalties for cannabis use, moving in 2010 and 2016 to allow police to issue a municipal summons to someone caught with pot, rather than arresting them.
Councilmember Helena Moreno said at a meeting of the council’s criminal justice committee Monday that she plans to introduce language in the coming weeks to reduce the current charge of $40 per cannabis offense down to one dollar. If passed by the full council, that rule would put New Orleans on a par with cities in Wisconsin, Kansas and others that have sought to decriminalize the drug.
“Look, if I could legalize recreational marijuana on the local level, I would do it,” Moreno said. “But every legal expert — including our own lawyers — has told me it can’t be done. … But I think there’s a lot of work to be done on decriminalization.”
The rule change would come amid research that shows Americans increasingly support the legalization of pot for both medical and recreational use, and as the state Legislature is considering bills to expand modest medicinal marijuana laws already on the books. A smaller effort to allow use for nonmedical reasons is also underway.
Roughly 60% of American adults say pot should be legal for all types of use, according to the Pew Research Center. About 55% of Louisiana residents supported legalizing small amounts of marijuana for recreation in 2019, the LSU Public Policy Research Lab found; other polls have found even more of the state’s residents back that idea.
Citing changing attitudes and a need for police to focus on violent crimes, the council in 2010 passed laws that allowed officers to write summonses for first-time pot possession. That was expanded in 2016 to include subsequent offenses, moves that caused arrests for pot possession in the city to drop by nearly 99% from 2009 to 2020, crime analyst Jeff Asher said Monday.
But even as arrests declined, Black people remained the most likely to be the targets of marijuana enforcement laws — a fact that was true in 2010, before the council amended its rules. In 2020, about 86% of all arrests and summonses issued for weed were issued to Black residents, most often Black males, according to Asher’s analysis.
Black people arrested for marijuana possession in New Orleans at higher rates than others, study finds
That’s even as Black people make up only 60% of the city’s population, and as national studies have shown that Black and White people use marijuana at comparable rates.
“The demographic makeup of who is getting arrested and who is getting summonses has remained largely unchanged over the last decade,” Asher said.
The analysis also found that in 2020, over half of the people who received Municipal Court summonses for marijuana possession failed to show up — a fact Asher said proved anti-marijuana laws have “become less and less of an effective policy” in the city.
Amid concerns about arrest policies, New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said in an earlier presentation to the committee that marijuana arrests and summonses are “not the result of any type of biased policing in and of itself of any race.”
Still, the chief executive of one advocacy group said the data suggests a need for more action. In addition to Moreno’s proposal, William Snowden of the Vera Institute of Justice said the city could also look at hosting expungement clinics for people with cannabis-related convictions, dismissing any such prosecutions and making the “smell of marijuana” an invalid justification for police to perform a traffic stop.
Moreno said the city might also examine its own policies, such as a ban on city employment for people who test positive for pot. Getting rid of that wouldn’t mean that “people can smoke in the workplace,” she added; it would simply mean that doing so off the job wouldn’t automatically warrant a termination.
Jay H. Banks, the committee’s chairperson, added that the city’s “antiquated” civil service rules have already spelled out trouble for one city employee who smoked weed during a stay in Colorado — where consumption is legal — then came back to his job in New Orleans and was tested. He said changing those rules and others would put New Orleans on a level playing field with other progressive cities.
“The tide is turning; and this is the direction this whole country is going in,” Banks said.