Why The Prison Capital Of The World Should Legalize Marijuana

There are at least five places in my hometown of Alexandria, Louisiana where you purchase enormous quantities of the world’s most dangerous intoxicant from a drive-through window. You may be required to use some code words, like “Funky Cold Medina” and “Tiger Aid” and “Pink Panty Pull-Down.” And if you look like you’re under a certain age, you’ll probably need to show some identification. But, don’t worry, it’s all completely legal.

In Louisiana, the drive-through daiquiri isn’t just a quirky novelty for tourists; for many, it’s a lifestyle. The cocktail was invented in New Orleans, after all, and even during Prohibition, Louisiana was still, proudly and defiantly, soaking in booze. Louisiana loves its alcohol, always has, and those drive-through daiquiri bars are just a manifestation of our insistence to laissez les bon temps rouler. Or so we’ve convinced ourselves to believe.

To be sure, I don’t have any real problem with drive-through daiquiri bars, because with very few exceptions, daiquiris are disgusting, tart, toxic amalgamations of the cheapest and foulest well liquors on the planet. If your idea of a good time is a self-induced headache, acid reflux, and stomach pains, then you will likely enjoy the masochistic nightmare of a frozen drink with some cleverly trashy name. Personally, I’m not a fan, but I believe that adults should be free to pick their own poisons, as long as they’re not hurting anyone else.

Still, it strikes me as bizarre, hypocritical, and unseemly that Louisiana allows people to purchase potent alcoholic beverages from the comfort of their car’s driver seat, yet continues to enforce some of the world’s harshest and most draconian laws against citizens who possess small quantities of a naturally-occurring plant.

Forty-three years after President Richard Nixon coined the term and made his declaration, America’s “War on Drugs” is now the longest and most devastating war in our nation’s history. By any metric, it has been a complete and utter failure. Its uneven and selective enforcement means that an African-American boy from Baltimore or New Orleans or Detroit may spend months, if not years, in jail for using and possessing cocaine, while a wealthy white man vacationing at his parent’s home in Maine can abuse cocaine, drive drunk, and still dream of one day being elected President of the United States.

The War on Drugs perpetuates poverty and protects privilege. It has resulted in the widespread incarceration of generations of predominately minority and predominately poor Americans, indelibly smearing their records and creating a permanent underclass of citizens, citizens who become trapped in a system that rewards prosecutors for conviction rates and pays private prison operators based on quantity, not quality.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the prison capital of the world, the Great State of Louisiana.

During the current legislative session, lawmakers will consider at least ten different bills about marijuana, including, perhaps most importantly, Austin Badon’s HB 14, which would cut penalties for repeat offenders in half. The legislature will also consider HB 720 and SB 541, which would legalize medicinal marijuana and which, at least tentatively, seems to have the support of Governor Bobby Jindal.

These are encouraging steps, but ultimately, they don’t go far enough.

Even if Representative Badon’s meritorious and well-intentioned bill to reduce penalties for those who are guilty of repeat offenses of marijuana possession is approved, we are only kicking the can down the road. Like the people of Colorado, Washington State, and Washington, D.C., we should acknowledge, once and for all, that the criminalization of the use and possession of marijuana is disastrous, fatally flawed, and hypocritical public policy.

I will let others who are more knowledgeable debate the medicinal benefits of marijuana. I was born with cerebral palsy, which means that if I wanted to (and if HB 720 and SB 541 are passed and signed into law), I could probably get a prescription for medical marijuana in Louisiana. But I’m not inclined to, because I’ve been able to get by without any medication. However, if it does, in fact, work for people like me, I want to reserve my right, and I don’t want to be judged or persecuted or prosecuted.

For me, this is simple. It’s about social and economic justice. It’s about finally acknowledging that marijuana is actually less dangerous than the cocktails and the wine and the beer our legislators drink at Ruth’s Chris and Galatoires. In the history of humankind, no one has ever overdosed on marijuana. Alcohol and cigarettes, however, kill people every single day.

Yesterday, Lauren McGaughy of The Times-Picayune published an extraordinarily insightful piece about Louisiana legislation on marijuana reform. According to Ms. McGaughy (who, in my opinion, is quickly asserting herself as one of the state’s best reporters), our draconian laws and penalties against marijuana use and possession have been and continue to be championed by the Louisiana District Attorney Association (LDAA).

Ms. McGaughy describes the LDAA as “powerful;” I think they’re foolish and horribly wrong. They are part of the problem, an organization led by people who apparently went to law school yet seem to care more about putting people behind bars than protecting and defending fundamental rights. I have absolutely no respect for the intellectual honesty or integrity of anyone, particularly someone with a degree in the law, who could review Louisiana’s absurdly punitive laws against possessing a plant and conclude that they’re appropriate and adequate.

This isn’t about good public policy to the LDAA; it’s about convictions, locking people up in jail for the flimsiest reasons.

It is shameful.

*****

I fully recognize that there is no possible way the Louisiana legislature and Governor Bobby Jindal would ever enact a law legalizing the recreational use and personal possession of marijuana. Our laws are still ten years behind Mississippi’s, for crying out loud.

But I strongly believe that I’m on the right side of history on this issue.

I’m not advocating in support of drug use, merely the fair and equal application of the law. I believe in being honest about science and medicine.

I am glad the Louisiana legislature is talking about changing our terrible laws, but ultimately, we shouldn’t be focused on making a bad law less bad; we should be focused on eliminating it entirely.

It’s a win-win, after all: We open up a huge source of tax revenue, and we rescue an entire generation of poor Louisianians from cynical district attorneys who value convictions over compassion.