Louisiana Supreme Court Upholds 18-Year Sentence for Marijuana Possession in 'Ridiculous' Decision

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 09, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Gary Howard was arrested, charged, and convicted of marijuana possession with intent to distribute after he was found with 18 grams of pot. To put that amount into context, that's about enough for 18 joints. And, because Howard had a prior felony on his record, those 18 grams got Howard 18 years in prison, without the possibility of parole.

Howard appealed his harsh sentence, and was rebuffed by the Louisiana Supreme Court. But the court's Chief Justice Bernette Johnson slammed her colleagues' decision, calling it "outrageous," "ridiculous," and of "little societal value."

Commerce or Consumption?

According to the AP, Howard had previous convictions, at least one for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. And while there was a gun found in the bedroom where Howard was arrested, he was acquitted of the firearms charge in this case. Instead, his conviction and sentence rested on whether the 18 grams of marijuana he was found with were for distribution or personal use.

The majority of the court focused on the alleged absence of smoking paraphernalia in the house, the presence of sandwich bags in the bedroom, and the fact that the marijuana was divided into "four separate bags inside a larger bag tied around the waistband of [Howard's] boxer shorts" as proof that Howard intended to sell the miniscule amount of marijuana. But the Chief Justice wasn't swayed.

"Even More Ridiculous"

Johnson noted the absence of "cash or scales, or any other pertinent indicia of distribution, found at the house," and went on to blast the length of Howard's sentence under the state's habitual offender statutes:

I find it outrageous that defendant's conviction of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, and sentence of 18 years imprisonment without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence, resulting from the discovery of a mere 18 grams of marijuana, will be allowed to stand. Considering the rapidly relaxing social attitudes toward the use of marijuana, the increasing number of states whose voters have approved the recreational use of marijuana,1 and changing laws (even in Louisiana) providing more lenient penalties relative to marijuana possession, the result of this case is even more ridiculous.

Johnson also questioned the impact of such a sentence on Louisiana as a state:

As a practical matter, in light of the inconsequential amount of marijuana found, imprisoning defendant for this extreme length of time at a cost of about $23,000 per year (costing our state over$400,000 in total) provides little societal value and only serves to further burden our financially strapped state and its tax payers.

Still, Howard's conviction and sentence remain in place under the court's ruling.

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