Pubdate: Fri, 29 Apr 2005
Source: Advocate, The (LA)
Copyright: 2005 The Advocate, Capital City Press
Author: J.D. Ventura
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Daniel Williams hardly looked like counter culture's poster boy. Sitting at 
a cafe table recently outside of Highland Coffees, he blended into the 
academic landscape: hair a bit tousled, notebooks askew, brainy-yet-hip 
glasses over a concentrated stare.

The media clearly made him nervous. His eye contact was intermittent and he 
went "off the record" almost immediately.

Nervousness is perhaps understandable. This is the state, after all, that 
considered drug testing all TOPS scholarship recipients, like Williams. So 
when you become the president of a student group at LSU that is trying to 
"decriminalize" marijuana in East Baton Rouge Parish, you choose your words 
carefully. Especially when talking to a reporter who is expecting you to 
say that you love smoking weed.

Williams, 22, didn't say that. Instead he said innocuous things like "we 
want to work toward harm reduction" and "drugs are a part of society." And 
then: "We do not encourage the illegal use of any substance, or breaking 
the law in any way."

The last statement seemed a bit ironic, given the "420" parties the 
Cannabis Action Network of Louisiana has put on for the last six years. 
This year's event, held again at the Spanish Moon nightclub, was a 
fund-raiser for its ballot initiative -- which aims to let EBR voters 
decide in October whether to lessen the penalties for marijuana possession.

For decades "420" has been drug culture code for marijuana. Several sources 
attribute the reference to a group of Californian teenagers who would meet, 
back in 1971, behind their high school at 4:20 p.m. to smoke pot. The "420" 
reference eventually took off and enjoyed widespread adoption among 
discreet pot smokers all over the world.

So a 420 party could only mean one thing, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

Politically, marijuana advocates may have some reason to party. A Gallup 
poll conducted in 2003 showed that, since 1969, there has been a 12 percent 
increase in the number of Americans who think marijuana should be 
legalized. Still, a sizeable 64 percent of those polled aren't in favor of 
decriminalizing cannabis.

Strong pro-pot lobbyist groups, like the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and 
the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML), have enjoyed 
healthy public support on the issue of medical marijuana, however, with 
that 1999 Gallup poll indicating that 73 percent of Americans support the 
drug's prescribed use to treat those with terminal illness or chronic pain.

Allen St. Pierre, NORML's executive director, said there was "very little" 
going on with regard to marijuana reform in Louisiana, however. It remains 
among the top third harshest states in terms of the severity of its 
marijuana sentencing guidelines.

Comparatively, adjacent Mississippi has somewhat decriminalized marijuana, 
in that first offenders who are caught possessing 30 grams or less face no 
jail time and are fined no more than $250. On subsequent offenses, for the 
same amount, only fines increase. The same offender in Louisiana, however, 
faces up to six months in jail. On a second possession offense, an offender 
is looking at a $2,000 fine and up to five years of jail time. A third 
possession offense in Louisiana, no matter what the amount, brings a felony 
conviction and up to 20 years in prison.

St. Pierre said that despite New Orleans being the "epicenter" of a live 
music scene sometimes associated with marijuana usage, that cultural 
phenomenon has not translated into substantive legal reform. Meanwhile, 
student groups, like CANOLA, try their best to make an impact, he said.

"(On campus) NORML chapters struggle with constant turnover," said St. 
Pierre. "People either burn out, or someone gets arrested. Many local 
efforts tend to die on the vine unless they are constantly cultivated."

Williams knows he's got his work cut out for him, admitting the pro-pot 
movement at LSU doesn't have "great funding" or "much political clout." 
Which is why, he explained, they proposed a parish-level ballot initiative, 
as opposed to a statewide campaign. Of the 12,000 signatures Williams said 
they need to collect, they have had 3,000 registered EBR voters sign so far.

If the measure makes it onto the ballot, voters will be asked whether they 
think it's a good idea to radically change the city ordinance that 
prescribes sentencing guidelines for marijuana possession. CANOLA wants to 
change that ordinance, which is currently in line with the state's 
sentencing structure, so that possession of marijuana, no matter what 
offense, would only be fineable. In other words, the city court could no 
longer impose incarceration, probation or rehabilitation on the drug 
offender. And the maximum fine would be $100.

Currently, the city court can sentence an offender to six months in the 
parish jail, up to a $500 fine or both.

"I would have to be against any initiative to soften sentencing 
guidelines," said the city's assistant chief administrative officer, Alfred 
Williams. "That would only make marijuana more available to not only 
college students, but kids in high school."

At one time the city had an "Anti-Drug Task Force." (It still has a Web 
site: But when the Holden administration 
examined the program, they discovered the initiative was only staffed by 
its director, Robert Gaston, and an assistant. According to Alfred 
Williams, it was an office that once employed 15 staffers, but eventually 
just "faded out." The federal grants allocated to run the task force (about 
$200,000 to $300,000, according to the mayor's office) had already been 
redirected to juvenile services and the police department.

Gaston and his assistant were removed from the payroll, saving the city 
$150,000, according to the assistant chief administrative officer. 
Currently the grant money pays probation officers to monitor juvenile 
offenders, and pays police officers who work drug-related details overtime.

The reformation of drug laws has systemic benefits, contend many lobbyist 
groups, like the New York-D.C.-based Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which has 
advocated softer sentencing as a solution to prison overcrowding. A 
spokesman for the DPA, Michael Blaine, said they have campaigns currently 
running in eight states, and plan on beginning a lobbying initiative in 
Louisiana "before August."

"These sentencing disparities are driving prison populations through the 
roof," said Blaine from his cell phone in the Atlanta airport. "Many of 
these people who are locked up are nonviolent offenders ... (Louisiana) 
needs to start taking a look at its minimum sentences."

According to Blaine, the DPA met with Gov. Kathleen Blanco's staff "on 
several occasions," culminating with a meeting last September, to discuss 
prison overcrowding as it relates to drug sentencing. Repeated inquiries to 
confirm whether such meetings took place went unanswered by the Governor's 

Party-goers at Spanish Moon were not as tight-lipped.

"It seems obvious that there is no significant threat from the growth, use 
or distribution of marijuana," said John Raleigh, a 24 year-old LSU student 
from Iowa. "There's ulterior motives for it's illegality. And there are 
vested interests in the war on drugs."

A few steps away at the bar, Jacob Russell, CANOLA's treasurer and a junior 
at LSU, launched into a lengthy, detailed history of marijuana prohibition 
and remained optimistic about furthering a liberal drug policy initiative 
in such a conservative part of the country.

"You begin to see the more libertarian side of the conservatives and more 
of them want to legalize it and tax it," said Russell. "So with 
decriminalization, the only thing they want to know is: 'Will it cost me 
less tax money whenever some kid gets busted for pot?'"

By 9 p.m., Daniel Williams and some other members of the group set up a 
table in the bar, covered with a hemp banner, bags of fake marijuana, and 
cannabis-themed magazines, like Weed World. The petition awaited signatures 
on a clip board, as the party's guests continued to arrive.

Russell and other activists imagine the day when paying a marijuana fine 
will be akin to paying a traffic ticket, and point to the successful 
grassroots ballot effort in Columbia, Mo., that led to just such a system 
being created there.

By 11 p.m. there was a line waiting to get in, and well over 200 people 
inside the bar. Williams took the stage and cited the number of people 
arrested in the United States in 2003 on marijuana-related charges (755,186).

"And 88 percent of those arrests are not dealers, smugglers or even 
cultivators, but rather generally nonviolent pot smokers, like so many of 
us here tonight."

Nonviolent or not, Tom Riley, a spokesman for the White House's Office of 
National Control Policy says legalizing marijuana is also a public health 
issue. "Marijuana is a much bigger part of the national addiction problem 
than many people acknowledge," said Riley. "This is not your father's 
marijuana. It's more potent than it used to be ... and it has very serious 
effects on (the development of brain functions) in young people."

That marijuana is a "gateway drug" is an old argument that should not be 
overlooked, either, according to Janice Williams, who represents 
Louisiana's Partnership For A Drug Free America chapter. "It leads to more 
harmful and deadly substances," she said, before also suggesting alcohol be 
more tightly regulated.

The city's Alfred Williams subscribes to the "gateway" argument, too. After 
"working in substance abuse programs for years," Baton Rouge's assistant 
chief administrative officer isn't interested in making marijuana use easier.

"I had an opportunity to see first hand what marijuana does," said the 
city's Williams. "Most who got addicted to cocaine and harder drugs got 
their start on marijuana and alcohol."

Not long after CANOLA's Williams concluded his speech, the first band of 
the evening took the stage. People stood and watched the show, beers in 
hand, greeting friends as they arrived. Just after 11:30, six people had 
signed the petition. Over the next several months CANOLA will need to 
gather thousands more signatures. But even if the group manages to get the 
initiative on the ballot, it may prove fruitless.

Mary Roper, a special assistant in the Parish Attorney's office, reviewed 
the proposal and found problems.

"The proposed amendment would be unconstitutional in its present form in 
that it seeks to define as misdemeanor offense ... crimes which are defined 
as a felony under state law," she wrote in an e-mail.

Roper added, if a police officer charges someone in EBR for possession of 
marijuana, that officer can choose to cite the offender for breaking either 
the city ordinance or the state law. So, even if the ballot initiative 
passed, law enforcement officers could bypass the more lenient city court 
system by writing-up violations of state law.

And this, explained Roper, would only cause the parish government to lose 
fine money to the state.

What sorts of questions Roper's findings will pose for Daniel Williams' 
group is to be seen. At the 420 party, though, the mood was not bogged down 
by such deflating legalese, and the evening's questions seemed easier to 

Like when Williams playfully asked the clapping crowd, "Who here likes 
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