When will Louisiana finally legalize recreational cannabis? | The Latest | Gambit Weekly

When Colorado and Washington first passed legislation legalizing recreational cannabis in 2012, they were anomalies in a country that at the federal level puts the plant in the same category as heroin.

At the time, conventional wisdom held that legal recreational cannabis would never spread much beyond a handful of states. But with Rhode Island, Maryland and Missouri becoming the most recent of 21 states to legalize recreational cannabis, nearly half of Americans now live in a state where it’s legal.

Yet despite the growing momentum and several lawmakers’ attempts over the years, Louisiana hasn’t followed suit — and advocates and political observers agree it almost certainly won’t happen before Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards leaves office.

This year marks the last year of Edwards’ term as governor, and it’s unclear if he’d veto legalization or regulation legislation should it make it to his desk. But it looks unlikely that such legislation will even make it to that point this regular session, which begins April 10.

“I think it will be very tough — I don’t ever want to say impossible — to get legalization through this year,” says Peter Robins-Brown, executive director of Louisiana Progress, an advocacy group that supports legalization. “But I do think it’s inevitable, and probably inevitable within the next few years.”

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Gov. John Bel Edwards is in the final year of his second term.

For starters, the biggest Republican supporter of legalization, Mandeville’s freshman legislator Rep. Richard Nelson, isn’t planning to bring forth any bills on the issue this year as he runs for governor. And Edwards has repeatedly said he doesn’t support legalization.

Plus, on top of the opposition from the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and Louisiana District Attorneys Association in years past, 2023 also is an election year.

It’s less clear what will happen with a new Louisiana governor, and there could be hope for coming years even if the state Republican Party’s candidate of choice, Attorney General Jeff Landry, ends up in office. A recent opinion from Landry’s office could be evidence that he may not be as stridently opposed to recreational cannabis as one would expect from someone with his brand of politics.

If a legalization bill were to reach a new governor’s desk, though, it would likely have the support of a conservative legislature and other stakeholders.

“Especially with public opinion being so positive, I think it’s hard for even Jeff Landry or [other announced Republican candidate Sen.] Sharon Hewitt to veto a legalization bill if it makes it through a conservative legislature,” Robins-Brown says.

While the Legislature has been hesitant to legalize recreational cannabis, the state already has a medical cannabis program and polling consistently shows Louisiana voters now support legalizing it for recreational use, too.

The University of New Orleans Research Center conducted a survey of Louisiana registered voters last year and found that 58% of them favored legalizing recreational marijuana. Thirty percent said they opposed it, while the other 12% reported not having an opinion on the matter.

Support for legalization has only increased in recent years. UNO polls found that until 2021, the majority of registered voters did not support legalizing cannabis. But in recent years, the tides turned — 54% opposed the idea in 2020, while 55% supported it just one year later.

Another 2021 survey by JMC Analytics even found strong support for legalization in nine districts — mostly in South Louisiana — that Trump carried handedly.

Rep. Kyle Green, a Marrero Democrat who has brought forth a legalization bill before, says that matches up with what he’s noticed in his district.

“I have constituents of mine who I’ve talked to, who would be classified as Republican Trump voters, and many of them are in favor of legalization,” Green says. “Many of them use it.”

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Spectators applaud a speaker at a 2014 Legalize Louisiana Rally.

But just because a policy is favored by the public doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easy to pass. For instance, a 2019 LSU survey found 81% of Louisiana residents favor raising the minimum wage but no proposal to do so has gained traction in the Legislature.

“Just because you can walk up and show a legislator a poll that shows the public is in support of one issue or another does not mean that politician is going to vote with the public, and marijuana is no exception,” says Jeremy Alford, editor and publisher of trade publication LaPolitics Weekly.

There are other factors at play, particularly reelection concerns in an election year.

For one, just because a policy is popular statewide doesn’t mean it’s popular in every voting district.

“I understand the situation they’re put in,” says Rep. Candace Newell, a first-term New Orleans Democrat who brings forth cannabis legislation yearly. “Their citizens have to vote for them, and so they’re not going to risk not being reelected because they voted for something that was popular among the state but just might not be popular in that district.”

Additionally, many legislators in conservative districts want to frame themselves as a candidate that’s “tough on crime” and fear a vote for recreational cannabis could ruin that image. Plus, they don’t want to be at odds with their sheriff or district attorney, who often have a lot of sway locally.

“Many conservatives believe that supporting recreational marijuana use would translate into a soft-on-crime stance, which is a death knell for any reelection attempt,” Alford says.

And even regardless of their stance on the issue, legislators typically stray away from passing any major policy changes in an election year — or at least those that have the public’s attention.

“One thing you have to remember about this year that trumps everything is that it’s an election year,” Alford says. “The things that lawmakers might be more open to at the beginning of the term, they might shy away from at a time like this when they are literally just months away from asking voters to allow them to keep their jobs.”

While most Democrats in the Legislature are on board with legalization, Republicans are divided on the issue.

In addition to the conservatives worried about soiling “a tough on crime” image, there are also more libertarian legislators who support legalization, while others are opposed on moral grounds.

Newell says she tries to tell those morally opposed that plenty of people are already using cannabis anyway and regulating it can ensure safer products and more money for the state.

“Folks are always saying, ‘Well, they shouldn’t do this. They shouldn’t do that.’ You have some people that say you shouldn’t drink,” Newell says. “But you put regulations on it, you tax it and you make sure that people who are selling it are selling it properly.”


Jeremy Alford is the publisher and editor of LaPolitics.com and LaPolitics Weekly.

Newell says that she has found that many of her fellow legislators are uneducated about cannabis.

“I had a conversation this week with a very conservative Republican and an extremely conservative Democrat, and it was like I got exhausted just talking to them … because they just didn’t want to understand regulating,” she told Gambit last month.

Meanwhile, some prohibitionist legislators have trafficked in outright misinformation. For instance, in 2018 Rep. Dodie Horton, a North Louisiana Republican, cited a false claim from a satirical publication about people overdosing on cannabis during committee debate on a medical cannabis bill.

And although many legislators acknowledge that legalization is “inevitable,” some still don’t want their names attached to it.

“It is interesting that almost all of the legislators who have been involved with the birth of the medical marijuana program and the decriminalization, the lion’s share, they don’t want to be ‘the weed person,’” Alford says. “They don’t want their policy legacy to be defined by that crop. Others don’t mind at all. I think they’re a little more visionary when it comes to what lies ahead for this issue.”

This year Newell is bringing forth a bill once again that would legalize recreational cannabis and set up state regulations for it, starting with a limited number of licenses for facilities. A second bill would remove existing legal penalties for possessing cannabis but only if the Legislature were to create a system for regulating and taxing it.

Newell’s legalization bill would also establish a program that would provide financial assistance and license application benefits to “individuals most directly and adversely impacted by the enforcement of cannabis-related law who are interested in starting cannabis business establishments.” Though the war on drugs has disproportionately impacted people of color, the vast majority of people profiting off cannabis legalization are white.

Robins-Brown says that Louisiana Progress supports the language but that he thinks it’s a tough sell in the state. In 2021, when Newell’s legalization bill made it to the floor, even though it was late in the evening, several legislators voiced their concern with that piece of the bill, which then failed 34-62.

Robins-Brown says Louisiana Progress is also working with a legislator on a bill that wouldn’t outright legalize recreational cannabis but would set up a system for taxing it should it become legal.

“We think we’ve developed a tax proposal that incorporates those best practices, and tailors this proposal to the needs and the political realities of Louisiana,” he says.

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Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, speaks with Rep. Candace Newell, D-New Orleans, at the State Capitol in 2021.

Nelson had arguably the most successful attempt at legalization when he tried back in 2021. His taxation bill made it out of committee onto the House floor but failed 47-49, well short of the two-thirds vote needed to pass a tax measure. It would have given some part of the taxes collected to local law enforcement.

Ultimately, opposition from the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys associations helped kill the bill, as has been the case with previous attempts.

Given the power sheriffs and district attorneys yield, Robins-Brown says, for legalization to pass this year, they’d need “the acquiescence” of both groups. And so far, they haven’t publicly announced a change in their stance.

Those odds are why in January, Nelson told Gambit it was unlikely he’d bring a legalization bill this year because “it’s an election year and there’s not that much hope in getting it through the Legislature.”

Green says he wouldn’t bring a legalization bill this year either for the same reason but adds he’d be open to bringing one next year if reelected.

“The votes aren’t there in the House of Representatives,” he says. “If you can’t get it out of House, it really doesn’t matter.”

Robins-Brown, who has also followed cannabis bills in the Legislature over the years, agrees with their assessment.

“There’s too many factors against it this year,” he says. “It’s an election year. You’ve got a governor who is a Democrat yet has stated that he’s against it. The law enforcement stakeholders haven’t changed their position in any meaningful way in terms of being more open to it.”

If legislators don’t legalize recreational cannabis this year, the dynamics could change once the state gets a new governor.

Nelson is the only announced candidate for Louisiana governor who has come out in support of legalization thus far, touting the revenue that taxing cannabis could bring to the state.

“Another state legalizes it everyday. You read about all the tax revenue that they’re getting,” he says. “That money would go a long way to paying our police, fixing our roads, fixing our schools, doing all these things.”

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The Louisiana Republican Party gave an early endorsement to Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry for governor.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican, told Gambit in a statement that she does not support legalization. Republicans Landry and Treasurer John Schroder, a former narcotics officer, did not provide Gambit with official statements but both seem unlikely to support legalization given their backgrounds in law enforcement.

While Landry will likely not be spearheading a push for legalization, he’s also not toed a strictly prohibitionist line, including a decision in January to sign off on the public’s ability to use telehealth appointments to obtain cannabis prescriptions.

Nelson is a bit of a longshot candidate. He has less name recognition than Landry and Schroder who both hold statewide office, and he’s also only in his first term in the Legislature compared to Hewitt who took office in 2016.

But legalizing recreational cannabis would create a massive industry in the state, meaning there are going to be political donors eyeing that potential market.

“If I’ve learned anything about Louisiana politics and this issue, I can tell you with absolute confidence, that it’s not red and it is not blue.” Alford says. “It is green, and I ain’t talking about weed.”

Already, shipbuilding magnate Boysie Bollinger, a huge political donor in the state, owns a large interest in Good Day Farm, LSU AgCenter’s medical cannabis partner. Robins-Brown describes Bollinger as “one of the most powerful people in the state, probably more powerful than some governors have been.”

“When something like that happens there’s almost like a permission system that kicks into place in politics,” Alford says. “Boysie Bollinger investing in this company and getting into the marijuana business gives politicians and other donors permission to do the same.”

“I do think that pro-marijuana forces will have more influence over this statewide election than any other previously because we do have an industry now and people know that there’s money to be made for this,” Alford adds.

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Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican who’s running for governor, says she does not support cannabis legalization.

Robins-Brown says he thinks legalization will depend on stakeholders and business owners and will happen no matter who the next governor is. But he also thinks the election could impact how soon that happens.

“I think if a Republican governor came into office and said, ‘This is something that I am very much in favor of. I’m committed to getting this done while I’m in office, working with an overwhelmingly Republican legislature,’ I think that certainly makes it easier,” he says.

But ultimately, according to Robins-Brown, if a legalization bill did have the support of the Louisiana Legislature (which means it would likely have the support of the sheriffs or DAs), it would be politically difficult for a governor to veto, especially given strong public support for it.

That includes Edwards, should the Legislature end up sending a legalization bill to his desk this year.

“I think that would be a tough veto for any governor, no matter how hostile they might be personally,” Robins-Brown says.


Cannabis plants growing under special grow lights at GB Sciences Louisiana in Baton Rouge. 

There are other ways recreational cannabis could become legal in Louisiana. If legislators don’t want to legalize it outright, they could create a constitutional amendment to put the issue to the voters.

But, again, the public being overwhelmingly in support of legalization is no guarantee the constitutional amendment would pass.

Voters in Maryland and Missouri passed ballot measures last year but voters in North Dakota, South Dakota and Arkansas rejected them. While North Dakota’s measure failed by a 10-point margin, that was a significant change from 2018 when it failed by a margin nearly double that.

Alford says the results of a ballot measure in Louisiana would really depend on who turns out to vote.

“If you got a ballot with a bunch of conservative races on it, faith-based maybe, it’s gonna be kind of tough,” he says. “But if you got a bunch of heavy races like New Orleans and Baton Rouge and Shreveport and strong Democrat statewide, it might. It just depends, and it depends what kind of argument you can present to the public.”

There’s also a chance the federal government could legalize cannabis, although Robins-Brown says that he doesn’t believe that’s likely, given the fact that so many states have already legalized cannabis on their own.

“I think what we’ve seen with these kinds of things is that the federal government — whether it’s through its own action or inaction, or Supreme Court rulings leading to action or inaction — that it seems to work out better on a state-by-state basis, by the government, federal government leaving it up to the states,” he says.

Robins-Brown says he thinks it’s more likely that the federal government will change its classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug. The classification labels “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” which is particularly ironic given medical cannabis is now legal in some form in 39 states, including Louisiana.

Instead, Robins-Brown thinks it’s more likely Louisiana will get there first, given its track record on medical cannabis and, most recently, decriminalization of small amounts of cannabis. Edwards signed both into law in recent years, putting Louisiana ahead of its neighbors in the Deep South on both issues.

“If you look at other states on their path to legalization, those are kind of the two tracks that take place,” he says. “The medical program expands sort of year by year. That helps people get more comfortable with it, like the general public gets more comfortable with it as well as legislators. And then you see some of that roll back in terms of how heavily we criminalize people for using marijuana.”

“Barring something totally unforeseen, I do think we’re on our way there.”

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