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Monday, 21 April 2014 14:35
Unlikely Louisiana groups in joint effort to decriminalize marijuana in legislature
 

marijuana-lightBernard Noble was visiting his father in New Orleans three and a half years ago when two cops spotted him riding a bicycle. They stopped Noble, frisked him and found a small amount of marijuana — the equivalent of two joints.

by Tyler Bridges of the Lens

 

Noble, a 47-year-old truck driver and father of three, is now serving a 13-year prison sentence after a jury found him guilty of marijuana possession. It was his fifth drug possession conviction. He originally was sentenced to five years, but Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Jr. appealed and got a longer sentence.

Noble’s case is emblematic of the growing debate over Louisiana’s harsh punishment of marijuana possession – a debate that will get a public hearing Tuesday morning when a Senate judiciary committee hears Senate Bill 323.

Sponsored by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, the bill would make possession of marijuana a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison. Under current law, first-time marijuana possession is a misdemeanor; subsequent charges are felonies. The maximum sentence for the third offense is 20 years in prison.

Lawmakers in Louisiana have continued to treat possession of marijuana severely even as their counterparts in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and several other southern states have made it a misdemeanor.

The Drug Policy Alliance, based in New York City, filed a brief Wednesday urging the Louisiana Supreme Court to review Noble’s sentence. “Thirteen years in prison for two joints is obscene,” said Daniel Abrahamson, director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of Legal Affairs. “The punishment is so far out of proportion to the conduct that we really can’t call it ‘punishment’ – it is more like torture.”

But Christopher Bowman, an assistant district attorney who is Cannizzaro’s spokesman, said Noble’s October 2010 arrest was his 11th since 1989. Two of those arrests were for both cocaine possession and illegal possession of a firearm. In one of those cases, the district attorney declined to prosecute; in the other, Noble was acquitted.

In 1991, Noble pleaded guilty to marijuana and cocaine possession, and marijuana possession again in 1999. He got short prison sentences each time. He pleaded guilty to marijuana possession in 1989 and 1993 and received suspended sentences each time.

Noble “has a flagrant disregard for the law,” Bowman said, adding that most offenders charged with felony marijuana possession — like Noble — have lengthy arrest records.

The Legislative Fiscal Office has yet to determine how much Morrell’s bill would save the state. A private report published in February said that 1,367 people were in prison for felony convictions of marijuana possession. Another 4,063 were on parole after serving time for marijuana possession convictions. The total cost to the state: nearly $20 million a year.

That study was done by Gregory Thompson for the Louisiana Sentencing Commission, a 22-member board of lawyers and judges that advises the governor. “Even as a prosecutor, I thought it was an inefficient use of time and resources to prosecute people for marijuana possession,” Thompson, a New Orleans defense attorney who previously worked as an assistant district attorney, said in an interview.

An unusual coalition is backing Morrell’s bill, as well as other measures aimed at reducing Louisiana’s incarceration rate — the highest in the country as a measure of its total population. The coalition includes prominent New Orleans business leaders, faith-based groups such as the Micah Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the libertarian think tank Pelican Institute for Public Policy.

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