By Kevin Caldwell
Even though the federal government still classifies cannabis (also known as marijuana) as a Schedule I drug (with “high potential for abuse and not currently accepted as a medical treatment”), 38 states — including Louisiana — have adopted comprehensive medical cannabis programs. Meanwhile, nearly half of the U.S. population lives in one of the 23 states that have legalized cannabis for adults 21 and older. While both medical and adult-use cannabis are illegal under federal law, in practice, the federal government hasn’t wasted its limited resources on state-level cannabis prosecutions in over a decade.
And the number of states charting their own path on cannabis reform continues to grow. It appears that the citizens of Ohio will vote on legalization this November, and regionally, there is a distinct possibility that Florida and Arkansas may be voting on legalization in 2024. Meanwhile, the state of Louisiana does not have a ballot initiative process, meaning the only way to reform cannabis laws is through the legislature.
The citizens of Louisiana will be voting for statewide offices and the legislature in an open primary on October 14 with a runoff on November 18. These elected officials will decide the course of the state over the next four years, including on cannabis reform. The Marijuana Policy Project will release a cannabis-centric voter guide in early September to educate voters where their candidates stand, based on both incumbents’ voting records and a questionnaire that has been sent to all candidates.
In recent years, legislators have become more aware of the shifting values of their constituents in regard to cannabis. Both LSU and JMC Analytics (a conservative-leaning polling company in Louisiana) have consistently shown support for legalization at roughly 70% for several years now. This level of support has led legislators to reduce cannabis penalties in recent years. In 2021, the state removed the possibility of jail time for possessing small amounts of cannabis, replacing it with a fine that still shows up on one’s criminal record. While this is a welcome improvement, lawmakers must go further to stop derailing lives and driving sales to the dangerous underground market.
In this year’s legislative session, state Rep. Barbara Freiberg (R) sponsored HB620, a tax structure for regulated, adult-use cannabis. Although the bill did not get out of committee, lawmakers had a robust, positive conversation. It also prompted the Vicente law firm of Colorado to perform an analysis of what a potential cannabis market would generate in tax revenue for local and state coffers. The analysis found that within three years, legalization would bring in an estimated $220 million dollars in tax revenue annually for Louisiana and parishes.
Opponents of legal cannabis suggest criminalizing adult consumers is necessary to protect minors. But our current policy of prohibition has done nothing to deter underage cannabis use. Studies have shown that rates of teens’ cannabis use do not rise after legalization. On the other hand, illicit dealers do not card, nor do they sell a product that has been tested for contaminants. Even further, they often recruit minors to sell the cannabis. A regulated cannabis market in Louisiana would ensure the products sold here are lab-tested, safe, and sold by adults to adults.
The organization I work for — the Marijuana Policy Project — advocates for a safe and pragmatic approach to a plant that has been used for thousands of years. The new legislature must decide if we are going to bring an unregulated, untaxed billion-dollar-a-year industry above ground or allow the illicit market to continue to flourish.
We can wait for federal prohibition to end, but lives will continue to be ruined and the state will be passing up economic opportunities. Across our nation, states are increasingly deciding policies on cannabis for themselves, and a supermajority of the public has come to agree the Land of Liberty should not penalize adults for using a substance that is safer than alcohol. It’s time to modernize our laws. Louisiana should lead the way in the South and end cannabis prohibition.
About Kevin Caldwell
Kevin Caldwell was born in Virginia and moved as an adult to Louisiana in 1992. He has a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from the University of New Orleans. He has worked as an intelligence analyst for a counter terrorism training program, the City of New Orleans for five years in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as well as in the hospitality industry for 25 years. He has been working as an advocate and lobbyist in the cannabis policy reform movement for over a decade in Louisiana. In 2021 he was hired as the Southeast Legislative Manager for the Marijuana Policy Project-which has been at the forefront of cannabis policy reform since 1995. He currently covers ten states for the organization, including Louisiana. In July last year, he moved to the Melrose community with his wife Janet Jones Caldwell, who was born and reared in the community.