Mary Jane goes to the Capitol

by Walter Pierce

Supporters of legalized marijuana made their long-shot pitch to Louisiana lawmakers Tuesday.

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Supporters of legalized marijuana made their long-shot pitch to Louisiana lawmakers Tuesday, saying it could generate dollars for the state treasury, provide a new cash crop for farmers, shrink the jail population and lessen pain for people with medical ailments.

The testimony was part of a study by the House criminal justice committee upon the request of Rep. Dalton Honore, D-Baton Rouge, a retired law enforcement officer who suggested that the public was interested in legalizing marijuana for medical use.

No legislation to legalize marijuana in Louisiana has been proposed so far for the upcoming regular session that begins March 10, and lawmakers say they don't think such a proposal could win passage.

"I don't believe we're going to turn around and legalize marijuana next year," said Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, chairman of the House committee.

"I'm not saying I have a closed mind to it," he said. "But I don't necessarily think we need to rush to it. We have states that have done that, and I'd like to see some statistics from them how it pans out."

Lopinto said he expects renewed support for a bill by Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, that would lessen penalties for marijuana possession in Louisiana. The measure passed the House last year, but failed to get backing in the Senate. Badon reintroduced it this year.

Twenty states have public medical marijuana programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado and Washington have passed laws allowing recreational marijuana use.

Louisiana has a medical marijuana law on the books from more than 20 years ago, but Lopinto said nothing in the statute allows for the dispensing of the drug if someone were to get a prescription for it.

Several people with medical conditions told lawmakers of marijuana's help in coping with chronic and severe pain.

MarkAlain Dery, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, said more people become addicted to the nicotine in cigarettes than to marijuana. He described medical marijuana as a critical tool for doctors, and he said he was disappointed he couldn't prescribe it to patients at the HIV clinic where he is medical director.

"The benefits of medical marijuana significantly outweigh the risks," Dery said.

William Breston Youngblood, a farmer from northeast Louisiana, said he grows herbs including basil and chives on his farm and struggles to keep his business afloat. He said legalizing marijuana could help bolster Louisiana's agricultural industry.

"It is a great opportunity to cash in, to create jobs for farms like mine," he said.

State health and law enforcement officials outlined opposition to legalization, saying marijuana users have an increased risk of health conditions and that marijuana is a "gateway drug" to more toxic substances.

Caddo Parish District Attorney Charles Scott objected to legalization on behalf of the state district attorneys association.

"Please think very carefully before you amend the current provisions," he said.

Rochelle Head-Dunham, the state health department's assistant secretary for behavioral health, read through a list of statistics about harmful effects from chronic use of marijuana, such as increased respiratory problems and rates of schizophrenia.