Locals part of statewide group supporting the legalization of marijuana

VERNON PARISH -- Proponents of the legalization of marijuana aren't letting up on state lawmakers. They've help to make the issue one of the agenda items of this year's legislative session which began Monday in Baton Rouge.
And in Vernon Parish, some legalization advocates are supporting that cause, rallying for local discussion.
Anacoco resident Troy Babineaux heads up the Vernon group, "Legalize Vernon." He said debate in Louisiana has never been more open, but there's more work to do. Babineaux has appeared with other advocates in the state on radio shows and forums.
"You would expect that in Louisiana, people would be against it left and right, but that's not the case. Sixty-five percent of Louisiana supports medicinal marijuana, but zero percent of lawmakers are working for it," he said.
Babineaux references a 2013 poll released by Public Policy Polling. Read more on the poll HERE.
"Legalize Vernon" is part of "Legalize Louisiana," a statewide effort to "decriminalize, legalize and regulate" marijuana in the state, according to the group's website.
Vernon members are planning an event from 4:20 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, April 19 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Leesville. Supporters hope for a strong showing for their cause. They'll also discuss the latest on pending legislation. You can find more HERE.
Babineaux said science and research have proved that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. He said that it has benefits that could ease the suffering of many people with serious medical conditions. Misinformation, he said, has led to the "demonization" of marijuana over the years.
"Your policy-makers have demonized it over the years so bad that people think that it's something other than what it is," said Babineaux. "They try to make it sound like we're all going to kill eachother if you smoke a joint."
"The bottom line is the pro-pot people are saying, 'Hey, it's never killed anybody. The government is saying,  'It's just like heroin. The people in the middle try, but who do they believe? Who is right? Where can you get the research?" Babineaux added.

Opponents: Risks are too great
However, opponents counter that risks outweigh any benefits.
District attorneys, law enforcement officials and substance abuse professionals argue that any benefits would be offset by risks.
Louisiana State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, in January, said troopers are responsible for keeping drivers safe and in states where marijuana is legal, there are problems.
The State Police released a report with data and talking points to the media. It includes studies from Colorado that suggest that traffic fatalities involving drivers testing positive for marijuana have increased to 114 percent from 2006 to 2011.
The state's voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana for medical use in 2000.
"Current cultivation techniques have engineered plants with significantly higher THC amounts. This increases the potential for impairment and the level of impairment. Studies have found that people who drive within a few hours of using marijuana are twice as likely to be involved in a car crash," the report states.
You can find that State Police information HERE and HERE.
In January, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals Assistant Secretary Rochelle Head-Dunham cited studies to the House committee that she said indicate increased risk for heart attacks as well as schizophrenia in teens.
You can find DHH-related information on marijuana use in the state HERE.

Advocates: Change is coming, now or later
Statewide supporters, in January, showed force at a meeting of the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee.
"I know Legalize Louisiana represented themselves quite well and have since and will because the facts are there," Babineaux said.
The committee convened at the request of state Rep. Dalton Honore, D-Baton Rouge, a former deputy sheriff, who has asked for state studies on legalizing marijuana for medical use.
Honore is proposing a bill, House Bill 839, that would reclassify cannabis from a schedule I substance (dangerous, no medical use) to a schedule II substance (dangerous, some medical use). Honore's House Bill 720 would authorize the medical use of marijuana in Louisiana. His House Bill 130
"removes convictions for offenses involving marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or chemical derivatives thereof, or synthetic cannabinoids from the habitual offender law." Another lawmaker, Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, has a bill dealing with the habitual offender law.
There are about 10 marijuana-related bills this session, in all.
Lawmakers are hearing testimony from individuals who have medical issues they say are eased by marijuana -- the most compelling arguments, supporters say.
Gov. Bobby Jindal has said he would be open to the idea of medical marijuana under certain guidelines and controls.

The middle ground: Drug laws
If there is one area where some supporters and lawmakers agree, it's where drug laws on habitual offenses and sentencing are concerned.
Under Honore's House Bill 130, prison time for multiple possession offenses would be reduced. The maximum prison term is 20 years is four convictions. The bill, if approved, would make the maximum prison term eight years on a fourth conviction.
Babineaux said even those discussions lead to others -- and questions.
"Money is always going to be an underlying issue with this but I would also have to say it's because, what are you going to do  with all the people sitting in jail right now?," Babineaux said.
Many lawmakers, most of whom have said they don't support legalization for medicinal or recreational purposes, have said that they would consider sentencing reforms.
According to the most recent information from the Louisiana Department of Corrections, there are 1,372 people in Louisiana in prison for simple possession of marijuana with an average sentence of eight and a half years.
Babineaux said 78 percent of those who are incarcerated are minorities. He said 10 people are currently serving life sentences in Louisiana prisons due to the way drug laws are written.

Supporters: Conversations encouraging
Babineaux said a lot of arguments have been made about the effect of legalization on children. He said supporters are also concerned about children -- and lives.
"Lives are ruined for something that is less addictive than the sugar you put in your coffee. Lives are ruined forever in the job market, in their family life, in every aspect ... in how people perceive them. They say you're a cocaine head, meth head when it's not even comparable," he said.
Babineaux said supporters are encouraged by conversations people are having on the issue. He said all eyes are on Colorado, which took in $2 million from taxes on recreational marijuana in January. The state became the first in the nation to permit the sale of recreational marijuana to anyone age 21 or older.
Babineaux also argues that some over-the-counter drugs can be more harmful. He said a person dies every 19 minutes from prescription drug abuse in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"Look at the overall picture and think," Babineaux said. "That's all what we want people to do."
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Sandy Blackwell