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New Orleans Amends Penalties for Marijuana

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - New Orleans City Council unanimously approved a measure that will dramatically reduce the penalties for marijuana possession in the Big Easy.

The passage of the measure on Thursday does not mean that marijuana is now legal New Orleans, but rather that instead of jail time, those caught will small amounts of pot will be subject to fines as low as $40.

The ordinance gives police the discretion to punish marijuana possession with a citation instead of issuing summonses or making arrests. The fine for a first offense will now be $40; a second offense, $60; a third offense $80; and $100 for all subsequent offenses.

Police officers will still have the ability to haul a person to jail for possession of marijuana if they decide to do so, which is something that can only be changed at the state level.

Although council members Thursday voiced concerns police officers would continue to arrest marijuana users under the state law, the consensus among the members was that a change in city law would be a move in the right direction.

"We are extremely impressed that all seven councilmembers supported this common sense marijuana reform," said Kevin Caldwell, executive director of CommonsenseNOLA, a group advocating for marijuana legalization.

"It's a great day for the City of New Orleans," Caldwell said.

Once signed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the new law will go into effect in 90 days.

New Orleans musicians, including Kermit Ruffins, gathered outside City Hall before the vote Thursday to show their support.

"My thing is that there's thousands of families, if not more, living paycheck to paycheck," Ruffins told Offbeat Magazine. "Especially young black families, which get targeted first.

"If they get pulled over, searched and marijuana is found in their possession, they can go to jail and have to pay legal fees, which will most likely add up to their monthly rent," Ruffins continued. "Therefore they have to move out of their apartment and go live with their grandma or cousin or uncle. It takes a year to recover from having marijuana on them."

Thursday's vote marked the continuance of trend toward local marijuana decriminalization. A city ordinance passed in 2011 gave police officers the option of issuing a summons for a first-time marijuana possession offense, instead of arresting the individual.

Since that move, marijuana arrests in New Orleans have dropped to approximately 2600 a year, down from 6000 annually between 2007 and 2010.

The City Council hopes the new law will further reduce the number of arrests for simple possession.

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