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    OPINION | Could NOLA be more than four years of fun?

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Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

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OPINION | Puff, puff, pass: Louisiana State marijuana laws impact marginalized communities

Taylor Fishman

Take a walk down Bourbon Street, through the French Quarter or even around Audubon Park, and you may smell a hint of the devil’s lettuce. While marijuana use is quite common all over the city, Louisiana only allows marijuana for direct medicinal purposes — a discrepancy that negatively impacts marginalized communities. 

It is hard to believe that a city as indulgent as The Big Easy still has restrictions on cannabis. Marijuana is the second most popular substance consumed for recreational use in America, second only to alcohol, and sometimes ranked third behind tobacco and nicotine products. While marijuana is also used for recreational purposes, it offers many medicinal benefits as well. 

Marijuana has astronomically impacted on the economy and would greatly benefit Louisiana’s local economy while decreasing the incarceration rate. A recent poll of Louisiana republican residents reported that 70% of adults strongly support the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2024. 

Marijuana has a complex history in America; for most of its history, it has been unregulated. European colonists initially used hemp plants to make rope, paper and medicine. Smoking the plant also became popular and was common both medicinally and recreationally. 

Then, during the 20th century, the Food and Drug Association began regulating marijuana and restricting its distribution. The law underwent multiple revisions until the enactment of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which established a federal drug policy naming marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug alongside opioids. 

Recognizing its capabilities, California became the first to legalize marijuana under state law with the Compassionate Use Act in 1996. The Compassionate Use Act allowed dispensaries to sell low-dose tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound in cannabis — to cancer patients and people suffering from chronic pain diseases or epilepsy. Many other states followed suit over the next several years, including Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Colorado. As of 2023, 24 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 38 states have decriminalized cannabis as well as legalized its medicinal use.

In 2021, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed House Bill 652, which decriminalized the use and possession of marijuana in amounts less than 14 grams. Decriminalization of 14 grams of cannabis prevents the risk of jail time and subjects individuals to a $100 fine. States that are at the forefront of legalization have statistically reduced their incarceration rates. Now that Louisiana has also decriminalized marijuana, it is predicted that the state’s incarceration rate will also exponentially decrease.  

Although it is federally illegal to use marijuana, people have continued to do so for decades. However, due to racial profiling by law enforcement, marginalized groups suffer vastly greater consequences than white people for the use of marijuana. 

In September, the Innocence Project — the leading nonprofit for criminal justice reform — released a report detailing the unconstitutional racial profiling of incarcerated individuals in Louisiana. According to the report, “In 2016, black adults comprised 30.6% of Louisiana’s adult population.” 

However, in Louisiana state prisons, Black adults make up 53.7% of the 67.3% of adults who are arrested and in prison, and Louisiana remains the state with the second-highest incarceration rate in the world. A more detailed assessment revealed that a Black person is six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. These unsurprising statistics have hurt the Black community and have increased incarceration rates. 

Cancer patients, individuals who suffer from chronic pain and even those with autoimmune disorders like epilepsy, are significantly impacted by legislation regarding cannabis. Ex-military and people who have PTSD might also rely on marijuana to subdue their symptoms. Medical marijuana is prescribed to a niche group of patients who depend on its medicinal benefits such as nausea relief, relaxation of the central nervous system and decreased pain signals.

Many employers require drug testing, and although a patient might not go to work while using cannabis, the drug is still detectable in urine samples, even five days after consumption. The Marijuana Policy Project is dedicated to changing laws and lives and influencing state legislators to support compassionate medical programs. Unfortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act does not protect patients who use marijuana against their employers, which allows companies to fire marijuana users without breaking federal law. Several states, including Arkansas and Oklahoma have passed bills preventing the discharge of employees due to cannabis use. 

Cannabis has a multitude of healing properties. It can be used for nausea, pain, epilepsy, AIDS and cardiovascular disease. Many patients receive medical marijuana cards, which act as a prescription and legal document confirming their approved use of the drug. Medical marijuana cards additionally offer dispensary information and resources to ensure the drug is taken correctly and productively. The lack of dispensaries in Louisiana debilitates the medically challenged community, inhibiting the distribution of marijuana to those who depend on it. 

Medical marijuana has changed my life. After being diagnosed with chronic pain syndrome in my central nervous system at 12 years old, I tried every treatment and medication recommended for pain management. Unfortunately, nothing prevailed. The constant changes in prescription medication were affecting my body, and eventually, my parents and I turned to cannabis, an organic substance, to treat my pain. For the first time in eight years, I was in no pain. After the initial shock of its abilities, I began researching marijuana, desperate to deduce the best strains for my symptoms. Now, after studying the different complexities of cannabis for a year and a half, I can confidently say it has enabled me to do more than I thought possible. 

Groups like the Marijuana Policy Project and local organizations must continue to push legislators toward the complete legalization of marijuana, including the tax and regulation of the drug. Louisiana has made recent strides in the right direction after law enforcement passed House Bill 286 in October, which expunges first-time possession records of 14 grams or less. Advocating for the legal use of marijuana has proven to impact state legislation and will prevail until Louisiana improves access for marginalized communities. So why is marijuana against the law? It naturally comes from a plant that grows in the earth’s soil. Doesn’t making it against the law seem a bit … unnatural? Well, we know Louis Armstrong felt that way as he famously said, ​​“It really puzzles me to see marijuana connected with narcotics … dope and all that crap. It’s a thousand times better than whiskey — it’s an assistant — a friend.”

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