Marijuana arrests ‘ravaged’ Black communities. Does Louisiana’s decriminalization bill add enough equity?

Maria Clark Andrew J. Yawn
The American South
Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use in Louisiana. Shreveport Democrat Rep. Cedric Glover authored the bill while Shreveport Rep. Alan Seabaugh’s amendment set the parameters for penalties. The legislation is based on a local ordinance passed in Shreveport.

Rev. Kelvin Cryer has seen firsthand how marijuana arrests can “devastate” a community.

Cryer became an associate minister at Star Hill Baptist Church on the west side of Baton Rouge in 2007. Since then, he’s received calls from mothers asking for bail money after their children didn’t show up to church. He’s been asked to speak in court and vouch for a community member who has been charged with possession. After those arrested have paid their fines and fees, he’s seen them struggle to land jobs or rent houses when arrests appear on background checks. 

Cryer’s church sits on North Foster Road, the westernmost boundary of the 70802 zip code that, between 2011-2017, had the highest rate of marijuana arrests of any zip code in Baton Rouge, according to a review of police statistics by local non-profit Together Baton Rouge. 

Star Hill Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Oct. 4, 2021.

The report, in the end, confirmed what Cryer already believed. The five zip codes with the highest rates of marijuana arrests were also the only zip codes in the city where residents were more than 90% Black. 

Overall, Black residents in East Baton Rouge Parish were seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession compared to white residents between 2010-2018, the largest racial disparity in the state, according to a 2020 ACLU report.

“It’s appalling...It’s an ongoing cycle,” Cryer said. “You can’t have generational wealth if you don’t have wealth. These arrests prohibit us, and it seems like people who don’t look like us don’t have the same outcomes.”

Rev. Kelvin Cryer’s Star Hill Baptist Church sits on North Foster Road, the westernmost boundary of the 70802 zip code that, between 2011-2017, had the highest rate of marijuana arrests of any zip code in Baton Rouge.

Does the new marijuana law add equity to the criminal justice system?

For decades, marijuana prohibition has disproportionately affected communities of color and low-income communities in Louisiana, which last year had the nation’s highest incarceration rate, according to the Department of Justice. Overall, Black residents are 3.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana in the state, according to the ACLU. That rate is higher than it was in the 2000s, when 60% of those arrested for marijuana possession were Black despite comprising only 32% of the population. 

This year, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law a bill that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana. The law, which went into effect Aug. 1, eliminates jail time and limits fines to $100 for those found with 14 grams of marijuana or less, a possession amount that now constitutes a misdemeanor. 

While the state decriminalization law is far from a panacea, legal experts and advocates say the reduced penalty makes the criminal justice system more equitable.

Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said that the law will stop “thousands and thousands of people from the demeaning and sometimes dangerous experience of being arrested and incarcerated.” 

Rep. Candace Newell called the bill a “fair compromise.” Newell voted for the law after her bill which pushed for full decriminalization, HB 243, failed this year. 

“It’s a good step in the right direction,” she said. 

Marijuana decriminalized:Louisiana bill decriminalizing marijuana signed into law Tuesday

Changing laws:Marijuana reform is slowly taking shape in the South, after years in the making

Cities passing decriminalization ordinances led the way to state bill

It's a significant statewide shift after nearly a decade of reform efforts gaining little traction. Louisiana was among the first southern states to legalize medical marijuana in 2016, but the program was one of the most restrictive in the country. Efforts to legalize recreational marijuana this year failed.

In recent years, New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport passed local decriminalization ordinances. These decisions pushed state lawmakers to consider the measure across Louisiana. 

Baton Rouge summons offenders to court and subjects them to fines under $100 instead of arresting them for small amounts of marijuana. In August, New Orleans City Council approved an expansive new ordinance pardoning all previous and future convictions for marijuana possession.

Marijuana plants grow under special grow lights in Baton Rouge, La., in this 2019 file photo.

Kevin Caldwell, a longtime local advocate for legalization and founder of Common Sense NOLA, called it an “important step toward ending prohibition.” 

“In New Orleans since 2016, people haven’t been going to jail for it. And now, after our newest ordinance, they're not even gonna have a record for it,” Caldwell said. 

State Rep. Cedric Glover D- Shreveport, who sponsored the state bill HB-652, described it as a small step in a longer journey of reforming marijuana laws, which he said: "fall disproportionately on folks who happen to be of color."

“We are talking about decades and decades of doing something that has cost us trillions of dollars in terms of the cost of incarceration and more importantly the lost potential for the lives that have been adversely impacted due to the current status of laws in Louisiana,” he said.

Related:Louisiana's largest medical marijuana producer expands growing operation to Ruston

Still, advocates said the new state law falls short and it will take more widespread change to compensate communities. 

“It's frustrating for those of us who would like to see marijuana prohibition ended altogether and restorative justice for everybody who's ever been harmed in the criminal legal system because of marijuana possession,” said Peter Robins Brown, the policy and advocacy director of Louisiana Progress, a marijuana reform lobbying group. 

‘It’s not so much ‘decriminalization’ as it is de-incarceration’

Those arrested for small amounts of marijuana will now only receive a misdemeanor, but that can still show up on a background check and affect a person’s chances of employment, said Sarah Whittington, staff attorney with the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana.

“It is still a conviction and there will be a criminal record. It’s not so much ‘decriminalization’ as it is de-incarceration for marijuana,” she said. 

Whittington’s office offers monthly free expungement clinics in New Orleans and works to clear records for those previously arrested. 

But even in a city with the most progressive marijuana laws in the state, there’s still a “definite disparate impact,” Whittington said. 

In 2020, 86% of those who received summonses or were arrested for marijuana possession were Black. And those who try to get their records expunged — a service that can cost $550— often tell her of difficulties getting job interviews, finding housing or starting their own business. 

“Any criminal record can be used under this catch-all term of moral turpitude to bar people from any kind of licensure. It’s a big issue because many who struggle to get hired will try to open their own business,” she said.

A mural that was created with the help of Reverend Kelvin Cryer in a community in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

O’Keefe of the Marijuana Policy Project attended law school in New Orleans and saw firsthand the “unequal enforcement” of marijuana laws between Black and white offenders. 

O’Keefe said marijuana prohibition has for decades dramatically limited opportunity.

“When you couple that with the fact that these laws are so racistly enforced, it actually just serves to reduce Black wealth, and to perpetuate discrimination,” she said. 

While O’Keefe said the decriminalization bill will prevent the majority of harm being done to people charged with possession, more work remains.

“We certainly hope that this will be followed up by a lot more and remedy the scarlet letter worn by people who have a cannabis conviction on their record and face literally hundreds of forms of collateral consequences where the door of opportunity is slammed on them,” she said. 

A path to equity

It’s likely that Louisiana lawmakers are not done considering marijuana law reforms. While legalization bills failed during the 2021 session, a committee was formed to study the effects of legalization and report its findings before the start of the 2022 session. 

Caldwell of Common Sense NOLA pointed out that no state has gone directly from criminalization to legalization. In the next three to five years, Robins Brown said he expects legalization in Louisiana.

If marijuana is fully legalized and decriminalized in the state, advocates hope it will be used to reinvest in communities like Rev. Cryer’s that have long seen high rates of marijuana arrests. 

Reverend Kelvin Cryer stands infront of a mural he helped create for a community in Baton Rouge. Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021.

Rep. Newell attempted to pass a bill this year (HB 709) that would provide a regulatory framework for legal marijuana businesses. The bill also sought to establish a social program that would offer financial assistance and license application benefits to those in communities “most directly and adversely impacted by the enforcement of cannabis-related law.”

Michigan, Illinois, Vermont and Connecticut among other states have passed similar reforms. 

“I don’t believe that we should have an industry that was once illegal and affected your life and in the end, you can’t be a part of it,” Newell said. 

For Rev. Cryer, this type of equitable reform could eventually provide better financial outcomes, better schools, and health care options in his community, he said. 

“That can be a good way to make it right, to sow back into our community after something has made a ravaging, devastating effect on our families,” Cryer said.