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The City Council has passed several major agenda items authored by Council President Helena Moreno to end penalties for small amounts of cannabis possession and pardon roughly ten thousand convictions and pending cases. Supporters say the move will help gain community trust with police and allow New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers to focus their efforts on reducing recent spikes in violent crime. 

The Council was able to eliminate penalties to simple possession of marijuana in New Orleans by utilizing its pardon power prospectively and retrospectively. 

Anyone who receives this summons is immediately forgiven with no additional action necessary by the accused, the officer, or the court; this means no court appearance and no police report are needed. The preemptive pardon is a novel solution to end penalties to this charge, and New Orleans is the first to lead in this effort.

“These new policies will help NOPD build community trust and use saved manpower hours to address major issues like shootings, murders, and the overall prevention of violence in our city,” said Council President Helena Moreno. “We must begin to rethink the historical practices that have over-incarcerated, over-fined, and stigmatized our communities for decades. The time to end the criminalization of cannabis possession is now. I’m proud of what this City Council has accomplished today. This is historic.”

The Council also cleared roughly 10,000 past convictions and pending cases of simple possession of marijuana by passing a motion enabling a blanket pardon of those charges. In pursuing the best interests of public health and following best practices enacted in other cities across the country, smoking of cannabis will still be prohibited in public spaces, but instead of NOPD issuing a drug summons, it will be a ticket in violation of the Smoke-Free Air Act which is not a drug charge.

“For far too long, the scales of who is punished and who is allowed to benefit from the production, sale, and use of cannabis have been off-balance and favored certain races and classes of people over others,” said Council Vice President Donna M. Glapion.”A reexamination of the policies implemented during the war on drugs makes it painfully clear that the strategy was over-aggressive and misguided. (This) vote is a great first step to stem the impacts of that negative legacy and begin the work of repairing those who have lost their lives and livelihood.” 

In fact, the measure passed with the full support of the Council’s members.

“I believe the best policy decisions are made when equity intersects with efficiency,” said District A Councilman Joseph Giarrusso III. “(This ordinance) will help avoid unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system for all New Orleanians, allow police to pursue important violations, and avoid unnecessary taxpayer expense.” 

District B Councilman J. Banks said, “Utilizing our limited public safety resources in the most efficient way makes sense. Our focus should be on violent criminals and those who would hurt others. Pardoning these offenses and freeing up resources in our overburdened criminal justice system are important steps towards making our city much safer for all of us.”

The new ordinances will take effect on Sept. 15.

“I’m proud that this Council is finally going to end decades of racist raids and arrests that have ruined the lives of mostly Black and brown people in New Orleans,” said District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer.  “Marijuana is legal in dozens of states and soon to be legal in ours. We can now stop wasting police time and resources on marijuana and let them go fight violent crime.”  

“I was proud to vote in favor of this critical legislation. We have been criminalizing our residents, and disproportionately criminalizing Black men and women, for using a drug that most of us believe should be legal, for too long,” said District D Councilman  Jared Brossett. “(This) was an important step in the right direction, and I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues as we fight to make the city we love more equitable.” 

District E Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen called the passage of the cannabis ordinances was “a big win towards the decriminalization of marijuana as well as the exoneration of nearly 10,000 people.”

“That’s huge,” Nguyen added. “Now NOPD officers can spend more time fighting crime rather than spending hours processing simple possession of marijuana cases,” 

While the City Council does not have the power to legalize the recreational use of marijuana (only the state legislature can do so), decriminalizing it locally is seen as an important move in a new direction. Meanwhile, a new Louisiana law eliminating the possibility of jail time for low-level marijuana possession offenses took effect on August 1.

House Bill 652 amended state law so that offenses involving the possession of up to 14 grams of marijuana are punishable by a fine of no more than $100, but will not include arrests or jail time. The fine-penalty remains in place regardless of whether the offender has any prior marijuana convictions. However, enhanced penalties and jail time remain in place for repeat offenders who are convicted of possessing more than 14 grams of marijuana. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) signed the state’s partial decriminalization measure into law in June.