Louisiana House votes down taxing marijuana; legalization effort dead for the year

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Legalizing marijuana in Louisiana died for the year Tuesday after lawmakers shot down a bill that called for taxing the product if it became legal.

Though House Bill 699 by Mandeville Republican Rep. Richard Nelson called for full legalization, House Bill 434, the tax bill, was the heavier lift because new taxes require the support of at least two-thirds of the members in each chamber.

HB 434 fell on a 47-48 vote, not even reaching a 53-vote simple majority, indicating HB 699 likely wouldn’t pass either. Nelson tabled the latter bill after the first vote.

Next year’s regular session is nonfiscal, so creating a new tax is off the table next year unless there is a special session.

Nelson was calling for a 15% retail tax on legal cannabis. Revenue would be split evenly between the state and local entities, with 20% dedicated to local law enforcement.

Rep. Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux, criticized Nelson for attempting to legalize marijuana despite the opposition of the state sheriff’s association. He questioned whether 20% was the right number to give to law enforcement and said a study group should be put together to help determine whether dedications for education, roads or other needs should be considered.

Nelson said excessive dedications make crafting a state budget more difficult, suggesting letting lawmakers choose how to appropriate the money during a session based on current priorities is the better way to go. He added, however, he would be willing to consider additional dedications if Fontenot wanted to propose an amendment.

When Nelson argued for HB 699 during his committee hearing, part of his reasoning was that people are going to use marijuana regardless, so the state should tax and regulate its use.

“Right now, all this money goes to drug dealers,” Nelson said Tuesday.

Medical cannabis products are legal in Louisiana, though smoking the raw plant still is illegal even for therapeutic reasons. House bills 391 and 514 by Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, which would make smokeable marijuana part of the state’s medical program, are pending in the Senate.

A Senate Judiciary committee is set to consider House Bill 652 by Rep. Cedric Glover, R-Shreveport. It calls for greatly reducing the potential penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Possession of 14 grams or less only would be punishable with a $100 fine. Under current law, penalties increase with subsequent convictions and could lead to a felony and jail time.

Polls indicate most Louisiana residents favor legalizing marijuana. As of April 14, 17 states, two territories and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation to regulate legal adult use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.