In 1992, then-presidential candidate and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton disclosed that he had experimented with cannabis in his youth. “I didn’t inhale,” he told voters.
Thirty years later, Gary Chambers, a Louisiana candidate for the US Senate, has flipped the script. On January 18, he released a now-viral campaign ad where he hits a blunt, while in a voiceover he describes the racist impact of marijuana prohibition.
“Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana laws than white people,” he says. “States waste $3.7 billion enforcing marijuana laws every year. Most of the people police are arresting aren’t dealers, but rather people with small amounts of pot, just like me.”
Chambers has stated that he supports legalizing cannabis and wants to “forgive those who were arrested.”
His video has been positively received on social media and by news outlets, with some applauding the rebuke by a Black man of “respectable” political norms.
Chambers is running for the seat currently held by Republican Senator John Kennedy, who was first elected in 2016, and is seeking reelection for a second six-year term. Louisiana uses a nonpartisan “majority vote” process. This means that all candidates of all parties will run in the primary election on November 8. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top candidates will proceed to the general election on December 10. Luke Mixon (D) and Xan John (Independent) are also running. The filing deadline is July 22.
Sen. Kennedy has never sponsored a cannabis bill, as Marijuana Moment noted, despite cannabis reform gaining significant traction in Congress during his tenure. The MORE Act to legalize cannabis federally, and the SAFE Banking Act to loosen banking restrictions on the industry both passed the House, but the Senate has not voted on them.
According to an ACLU analysis, from 2010-2018, Black residents remained 3.4 times likelier than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession.
But Kennedy’s anti-cannabis record goes further. He was one of 13 Senators in 2018 to vote against the “farm bill” which legalized hemp and lifted certain restrictions on CBD. That reform was approved by then-President Trump and proudly championed by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell—showing how out-of-step Kennedy is even with some hardline Republicans.
Chambers had good reason to raise the issue of cannabis, arrests and racism in Louisiana. According to an ACLU analysis of data from 2010-2018, Black residents remained 3.4 times likelier than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession. More than half of all Louisiana drug arrests in 2018 were for cannabis possession. And Chambers’ East Baton Rouge Parish has the worst racial disparity in the state: Black residents are seven times likelier than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession.
Louisiana also holds the dismal distinction of incarcerating more people per capita than any other jurisdiction or country in the world. A horrifying 1,094 people per 100,000 are incarcerated—more than 1 percent of the population—compared to 664 per 100,000 in the US as a whole. Even worse, nearly a quarter of incarcerated people are held in local jails, with a significant portion held in pre-trial detention and not convicted of a crime. Black residents are grossly overrepresented: They make up 32 percent of the general population, but 66 percent of the incarcerated.
A 2018 analysis by Southern Poverty Law Center found racial profiling of Black residents throughout the state. In the city of Gretna, for example, two-thirds of arrests were of Black residents, who make up only one-third of the population. In 2016, of all arrests of Black people in the city, only about 17 percent were for what the FBI designates serious crimes—with the remainder for drug possession (primarily cannabis), disorderly conduct or other low-level issues.
A March 2021 poll found that a strong majority—67 percent of Louisiana voters—support legalizing adult-use cannabis.
It was partly in recognition of these disparities that Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) signed a cannabis decriminalization bill into law in June 2021. Possession of up to 14 grams is now not subject to arrest, but instead a fine of up to $100.
New Orleans City Council went a step further: In August 2021, it voted unanimously to remove all fines for simple cannabis possession, and immediately pardon all people convicted for it since 2010. Cannabis arrests have already decreased dramatically in the city—from about 1,500 in 2008 to 22 in 2020.
But while the law took effect in September, New Orleans police continued issuing citations for simple possession. The resulting criticism, including from city lawmakers and public defenders, led to the police department announcing on January 14 it would finally stop issuing citations for simple cannabis possession.
Cannabis remains legal only for medical use in Louisiana. A March 2021 poll found that a strong majority—67 percent of voters—support legalizing adult-use cannabis.
Screenshot from Gary Chambers’ campaign ad via Youtube