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Louisiana House panel advances bill to legalize recreational marijuana

A bill to legalize recreational marijuana in Louisiana advanced from a House committee Tuesday for the first time ever after three Republicans on the panel agreed to move the measure forward for a wider debate.

Mandeville Republican Rep. Richard Nelson's House Bill 524 to legalize weed cleared the House Criminal Justice Committee on a 7-5 vote and advances to the full House.

A second bill by New Orleans Democratic Rep. Candace Newell to decriminalize marijuana (House Bill 243) also cleared the committee Tuesday.

Medical marijuana is already legal in Louisiana with efforts to expand that program also gaining momentum. Last week the full House approved a bill by Pro-tem Tanner Magee, R-Houma, to add smokable marijuana to the state's medical program.

Nelson said he would have been voted least likely to carry the banner for legalizing recreational pot in high school, where he was an Eagle Scout and valedictorian.

"I've never smoked marijuana in my life," he said.

But Nelson said he filed the bill to make weed legal for adults 21 and older to make the product safer and generate tax revenue. The bill would allow local parishes and municipalities to opt out.

"We've relied on prohibition for the last 70 years," Nelson said. "It just hasn't worked. Is it better to fund drug dealers and cartels than it is to have a safe and regulated product?"

"We can legalize it and tax it to support law enforcement, schols and roads."

Nelson estimated legalization would generate $100 million to $200 million in annual tax revenue, though setting the framework for taxation would be handled in a companion bill that hasn't had its first hearing.

Final passage remains a long shot, but Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards softened his position on legalization Tuesday after previously opposing it.

Edwards said he will reserve judgement until the bill hits his desk, which would take passage by the full Legislature. "I'm not going to speculate on that now, but I have great interest in what it says," the governor said when asked if he would sign the bill.

Supporters of Nelson's bill pointed to polls showing public sentiment for legalization continues to grow. At least 16 other states have already legalized recreational marijuana.

A March poll by JMC Analytics and Polling commissioned by the Louisiana Association for Therapeutic Alternatives showed 67% of respondents favor legalization. In 2019, an LSU polls showed 55% favored legalization.

Republican Rep. Scott Markham McKnight of Baton Rouge, one of the three GOP members to vote in favor of advancing the bill out of committee, said he believes the conversation should continue "on a larger basis."

"From my district I haven't had any pushback," he said.

"It's a good attempt to help Louisiana to move to the forefront," said Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge.

But opponents like Republican Rep. Bryan Fontenot of Thibodaux fear legalizing pot will lead to more male suicides, citing a report from Colorado where weed has been legal for years, and an increase in auto accidents.

"It won't be all unicorns and rainbows," Fontenot said.

The powerful Louisiana Sheriffs' Association and Louisiana District Attorneys oppose the bill.

Sheriffs' Association executive director Michael Ranatza gave a passionate plea to kill the bill.

"Is $100 million worth the death of my child, my grandchild?" Ranatza said. "If you are to legalize this, you'll own it. You'll own the liability for it. I don't know if we're prepared for that at this time. I really think we haven't thought this process forward."

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