New Orleans City Council president Helena Moreno is pushing legislation that would automatically pardon residents found in possession of marijuana, in what would be the most concrete step toward legalization of the drug in the city.
The rules under review would pardon any municipal court summons police issue or have issued to weed users. It would only apply to people charged with simple possession of marijuana, or enough for personal consumption.
The city’s smoke-free ordinance would be expanded to ban pot smoking wherever tobacco smoking is banned, and to specifically ban people from smoking weed in public spaces. But pot smoking would be allowed in private areas.
Synthetic marijuana would continue to be banned. People could also not receive refunds of past fines they have paid to the city for simple weed possession, though future fines would be discharged.
Moreno, who introduced the ordinance at a City Council meeting Thursday, said its goal is to remedy a drug law that has fined a disproportionate number of Black residents for pot use. The existing law, which allow New Orleans police to issue summonses for pot possession, saddle officers with busy work when they could be fighting violent crime, she said.
“Decriminalizing cannabis isn’t just about promoting equal justice, this also speaks to better use of our NOPD resources and a force multiplier to help focus on calls for service,” Moreno said.
“What I’m proposing is out of the box, and automatic preemptive pardons are the first to be attempted. I know this is a heavy lift and this work will be hard, but it is important, and I’m dedicated to making this happen.”
The ordinance now heads to the council’s criminal justice committee, where it will be vetted before being considered by the full council.
The announcement comes on the heels of a stalled effort to legalize pot statewide, as a bill that would have taxed marijuana sales died this week in the House amid opposition from the powerful Louisiana Sheriffs Association. However, a separate bill to simply fine people for simple pot possession, rather than send them to jail, is moving forward.
Polls in Louisiana and around the country also show shifting attitudes around marijuana use, with 55% of the state’s residents supporting recreational use according to a University of New Orleans survey and 60% of Americans supporting the same, according to the Pew Research Center.
In New Orleans, the effort to decriminalize the drug stretches back years, though Moreno’s proposal is the most far-reaching.
Ordinances in 2010 and in 2016 allowed police to avoid making arrests for simple weed possession and instead issue summonses for first-time and subsequent uses. As a result, pot arrests dropped by nearly 99% from 2009 to 2020, according to crime analyst Jeff Asher.
Even with that decline, Black people were the most likely targets of marijuana enforcement laws, a fact that was true before the council amended those rules. Last year, about 86% of all arrests and summonses issued for weed were issued to Black residents, most often Black males, according to Asher.
Roughly 60% of people fail to show up in court after being assigned a ticket, which can lead to arrest warrants. And even those who do show up and pay their tickets are considered to have plead guilty to a drug offense, which can adversely affect their employment or housing prospects.
Moreno said she originally sought to outright strike penalties for simple possession from the city’s code, but given the state ban against pot use, NOPD would only have the more stringent state penalty — which can include jail time — to go by if the local rule was abolished.
Instead, local language would remain on the books, but the council and the mayor would pardon past offenses and any future ones under her plan. If the ordinances are passed by the full council, they would take effect this September.
The state’s law against marijuana use would remain in effect, which would mean residents could still be fined or arrested by state police for smoking.