Back in 1971, a Lafourche Parish sheriff’s candidate by the name of Stoney Serigny ran on a platform to decriminalize marijuana.
Though the Leeville candidate eventually lost the sheriff’s race to Bobby Tardo, the debate about legalizing marijuana in Louisiana continues five decades later.
The latest effort to legalize recreational marijuana failed following a 47-48 vote against a bill to tax the sale of marijuana Thursday in the state House. The measure needed at least 70 votes to pass.
Though the issue remains in limbo in the state Legislature, the legalization of recreational marijuana is inevitable, local law enforcement officials say.
“It’s not going to happen this year or next, but I do believe the trend across the country is moving in that direction,” Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre said. “Louisiana has taken some steps already with medical marijuana and CBD.”
Local sheriffs said more information is needed before marijuana dispensaries are allowed to pop up in Terrebonne and Lafourche.
“I believe it’s prudent for the state to take the action it has taken and study the ramifications because there are indeed some ramifications,” Webre said. “The question is are these consequences manageable enough?”
Alcohol, for instance, is fairly straightforward, he said.
“Alcohol itself is legal but driving under the influence of alcohol is not,” Webre said. “However, there are ways to establish the concentration and determine blood-alcohol levels. There will have to be some measurable way of establishing impairment.
“There will also be certain jobs that will not be eligible for people who use recreational marijuana. Then there’s the question of marijuana being a gateway drug and leading to more serious drug abuse. There are lots of factors to consider.”
‘The writing on the wall’
Terrebonne Sheriff Tim Soignet also said legalization of recreational pot is imminent but believes more information is needed to study the issue first.
“We’re seeing the writing on the wall,” Soignet said. “It’s going to come. But from a law enforcement prospective, are we prepared to handle the extras using science?
“We have good tests for impaired driving with alcohol, but are we prepared to deal with impaired driving with marijuana? I think those will be some challenges that we need to address.”
He said police and Louisiana officials will reach out to other states where marijuana was legalized and learn about the problems they had in the initial stages so that can be safely rolled out here.
“I don’t think anyone is going to deny that it will happen,” Soignet said. “Eventually it will, but I think it’s going to take a little time preparing for those things. We owe it to the people to be prepared for all the issues it may bring.”
According to a recent survey conducted by the University of New Orleans, over 55% of voters were in favor of legalized recreational marijuana. The Pew Research Center said 17 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized marijuana.
Your tax dollars at work?
State Rep. Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux, a former law enforcement officer who voted against the latest marijuana bill, said he stands with the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association which also opposed the measure.
“I believe that for far too long that the legislative body has made hollow promises as to where tax dollars will be spent,” Fontenot said Thursday. “Through approval of video poker, riverboat casinos and land-based casinos, the Legislature has promised better teacher pay, better police pay and better roads.
“Teachers’ salary remains below the Southern … average, police in Louisiana remain the lowest paid and our roads are in deplorable condition with a $15 billion backlog of projects.
“I cannot support introducing $200 million of tax dollars derived from the sales of legal marijuana without knowing where the money will be spent, which is why I led the charge to defeat the taxation of legal marijuana in the posture it was presented.”
Webre said he believes the recreational marijuana issue will eventually fall in the hands of voters.
“I always believe the will of the people and their elected representatives and what is socially acceptable is something that we as law enforcement have to adapt to,” the sheriff said. “We certainly should have input, but at the end of the day it would be a question of that should be put to voters. If the voters of Louisiana believe that recreational use of marijuana should be legalized, we will simply adapt to that.
“But first I really want valid, reliable data to look at. I don’t believe we have sufficient information to legalize it today. But if and when that day happens, I will be happy to be part of the discussion to make any internal adjustments we have to make.”
— Staff Writer Dan Copp can be reached at 448-7639 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanVCopp.