Louisiana Doesn’t Seem Ready For Legalized Weed

There was a bill last week which successfully wafted through the Louisiana House of Representatives, passing with a 67-25 vote, which would decriminalize marijuana possession. And Louisiana has already moved into the medical marijuana space. But weed isn’t going to be made fully legal in the Bayou State this year despite the best efforts of freshman Republican Richard Nelson.

Legalizing marijuana in Louisiana died for the year Tuesday after lawmakers shot down a bill that called for taxing the product if it became legal.

Though House Bill 699 by Mandeville Republican Rep. Richard Nelson called for full legalization, House Bill 434, the tax bill, was the heavier lift because new taxes require the support of at least two-thirds of the members in each chamber.

HB 434 fell on a 47-48 vote, not even reaching a 53-vote simple majority, indicating HB 699 likely wouldn’t pass either. Nelson tabled the latter bill after the first vote.

Next year’s regular session is nonfiscal, so creating a new tax is off the table next year unless there is a special session.

Nelson was calling for a 15% retail tax on legal cannabis. Revenue would be split evenly between the state and local entities, with 20% dedicated to local law enforcement.

Rep. Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux, criticized Nelson for attempting to legalize marijuana despite the opposition of the state sheriff’s association. He questioned whether 20% was the right number to give to law enforcement and said a study group should be put together to help determine whether dedications for education, roads or other needs should be considered.

Nelson said excessive dedications make crafting a state budget more difficult, suggesting letting lawmakers choose how to appropriate the money during a session based on current priorities is the better way to go. He added, however, he would be willing to consider additional dedications if Fontenot wanted to propose an amendment.

We weighed in on the legalized weed question earlier this month here. Our problem with the idea isn’t really with Nelson’s package of bills, which is designed to create something of a free market on the supply side for weed. It’s that given Louisiana’s way of doing business, particularly at the state capitol, it’s inevitable that the lobbyists and insider fatcats would latch on to legalized marijuana as the ultimate honey pot, and within a year or two of weed becoming legal you’d see a legislative consensus for it being “tightly regulated” in order to promote public safety.

Which sounds good.

Except “tightly regulated” would end up meaning only a half-dozen, or perhaps a few more, connected insiders would end up with licenses to grow and sell weed in Louisiana, and the big contract lobbyists would all have them as clients. Better than half of them would likely be out of state players.

And the thousands of Billy Bobs, Boudreaux’s and Tyrones who by rights ought to be free to make a market for weed if it’s going to be legal in the state would probably end up outlaws just like they currently are. And legalizing weed would end up making the marijuana lobby a monster to rival the river pilots, trial lawyers and nursing home operators as special interests who can’t be touched.

Is that worse than the current scenario? Nelson thinks not. We’re a bit more cynical.

At some point, if real reform were to come to Louisiana and the money-changers were to be chased from the temple, and the politicians, lobbyists and bureaucrats could be peeled off some of our more conventional economic sectors (like cosmetology, interior design and florists, for example), you’d have the ground prepared for legalizing weed without it turning into a oligopolistic fiasco.

But that isn’t happening with John Bel Edwards running the show and the current for-sale legislative leadership. The time isn’t right for legalized weed in Louisiana, whether the people are ready for it or not.

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