After spending nearly a decade behind bars for selling a small amount of marijuana, Derek Harris is finally going to be free to reunite with his loved ones.
Who is Derek Harris?
Derek Harris is a military veteran who served the United States during Operation Desert Storm. According to his family, when Harris returned home from overseas, he was a different man than the one who left to fight for his country. Like many others, after his time in the Gulf War, Harris developed a substance abuse problem. His issues with drugs lead to a series of petty offenses, including theft of property under $500 and distribution of cocaine. These incidents culminated in 2008, when Harris was arrested in Louisiana for selling a police officer .69 grams of cannabis.
Initially, Harris was convicted and subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, in 2012 prosecutors argued that Harris should be resentenced under the Habitual Offenders Law. Judge Durwood Conque of Louisiana agreed and sentenced Harris to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His court-appointed Public Defender made no attempt to appeal this ruling.
“Nothing that he did deserved life without the possibility of parole,” Harris’s older brother Antoine Harris told The Appeal during a phone interview.
While incarcerated, Harris attempted to challenge the excessiveness of the decision, and argued that he had not received adequate legal representation. In 2013, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal ruled against Harris, but Judge Sylvia Cooks disagreed.
“I believe it is unconscionable to impose a life-sentence-without-benefit upon this Defendant who served his country on the field of battle and returned home to find his country offered him no help for his drug addiction problem. It is an incomprehensible, needless, tragic waste of a human life for the sake of slavish adherence to the technicalities of law.” Judge Cooks wrote.
Harris’ new attorney, Cormac Boyle, once again presented the argument that Harris received ineffective legal assistance during his post-conviction sentencing. This time, the Supreme Court of Louisiana agreed that his sentence was too harsh.
Justice Wiemer wrote that, in his opinion, Harris “developed a substance abuse problem after returning from his honorable military service in Desert Storm, and his prior offenses were nonviolent and related to his untreated dependency on drugs.”
Wiemer also noted that the original trial judge said of Harris that he was “not a drug kingpin” and didn’t fit what they thought of “as a drug dealer, so far as I can tell.”
A new sentence of nine years time served was handed down to Harris, though the exact date of his actual release has yet to be determined—Boyle hopes to have him freed soon.
Cormac Boyle told CNN that Harris is looking forward to being a free man, and that he plans on relocating to Louisville after his release to be closer to his family in Kentucky. He’s excited to meet his nephews. It’s been nearly a decade since Derek and his brother Antoine have seen one another in person.
New laws expanding the medical marijuana program in Louisiana went into effect on August 1. The state’s medical marijuana program has been criticized for being too limited and too restrictive since the program was established in 2016, but the three laws that went into effect on Saturday aim to improve the situation.
Louisiana’s medical marijuana program may have been established three years ago, but patients were not granted access to medicine until August of 2019 when the first round of the product became available. Home cultivation remains illegal for the more than 4,000 registered medical marijuana patients. Only two facilities are allowed to cultivate medical cannabis for the entire state, and only nine pharmacies are licensed to distribute it to patients.
House Bill 819
Previously, the number of physicians that were allowed to recommend medical marijuana therapy was limited and so were the conditions that would qualify a person for the program. Under the new regulations established by HB 819, any physician licensed by the state of Louisiana has the authority to recommend medical cannabis to his or her patients. Previously, only physicians registered with the program were permitted to discuss it with patients. As a result, the program struggled to recruit physicians to participate.
This legislation also expands conditions which qualify a person to apply for the program and puts more emphasis on the patient-physician relationship by opening the program’s door to any person suffering from “any condition” which is deemed to be debilitating by the physician. Under the prior regulations, only patients suffering from a certain list of conditions, like cancer, epilepsy, or HIV, could qualify for the medical marijuana program.
House Bill 418
Even though more than half of the states in America have legalized some form of cannabis use, whether medical or recreational, the plant and its derivatives remain federally illegal. House Bill 418 aims to provide extra protection for those businesses that operate within the parameters of Louisiana state law. This legislation certifies that: “Any facility that is licensed by the Louisiana Department of Health and has patients in its care using medical marijuana shall be exempt from the prohibitions provided in this Section for possession and distribution of marijuana.”
House Bill 211
House Bill 211 addresses another major restriction placed on state-legal cannabis businesses by the federal government. While cannabis remains illegal under the Controlled Substances Act, businesses licensed by the federal government, like those that provide banking services, are not able to work with any cannabis-related company without fear of federal prosecution.
Unlike federal regulations, the enactment of House Bill 211 is meant to motivate financial institutions to service those cannabis-related businesses that are licensed and operating legally in the state of Louisiana.
This legislation sets the expectation that the state will not: “Penalize a state bank or credit union for providing financial services to a cannabis-related legitimate business or service provider solely because the account holder is a cannabis-related legitimate business or service provider or is an employee, owner, or operator of a cannabis-related legitimate business or service provider.”
Federal Law: SAFE Banking Act
Many proponents think that federal lawmakers should take a page out of Louisiana’s playbook regarding the relationship between financial institutions and legitimate cannabis businesses. As long as cannabis remains illegal under federal law, banks that choose to work with cannabis industry businesses are at risk even though those businesses are operating legally under state law.
The United States Congress is currently considering legislation known as the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (SAFE Banking Act) which would effectively lift the restrictions preventing banks and insurance service providers from openly working with cannabis businesses.
The House has already approved the SAFE Banking Act, and the legislation is currently being held up by the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Some Senators may need encouragement from you, the constituents, to support the SAFE Banking Act. NORML has made it incredibly easy to contact your state’s Senators to let them know that you want them to approve the SAFE Banking Act. Click here to be redirected to NORML’s website where all you have to do is enter your information and it will automatically send your letter of support.
In further proof of the very wide range of marijuana laws and application from state to state, the Louisiana Supreme Court is taking heat for upholding an 18-year sentence for possession of 18 grams of marijuana. Not mincing words in her dissent, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson ripped her colleagues for backing the harsh sentencing, citing significant shifts in attitudes towards cannabis both in Louisiana and around the rest of the country. With the case instantly drawing national attention, it highlights the ongoing battle against draconian prison sentencing by advocacy groups and government officials like Johnson, particularly within states like. Louisiana that have had little change in cannabis laws despite the changing national sentiment.
Originally sentenced in 2014 for possession with the intent to distribute, Gary Howard was picked up in 2013 for having cannabis that was separated in plastic bags and also had a limited prior record, including a gun charge back in 2008. While Johnson argued that this was not enough to derive intent to distribute, that was hardly the only criticism levied by the angered chief justice, who also asserted the arbitrary nature of the 18-year sentence that appeared directly tied to the 18 grams of marijuana. Johnson suggested that the court was holding Johnson’s prior gun charge against him in sentencing, which she found inherently inappropriate considering that the previous charge did not lead to a conviction.
The 18-year sentence itself isn’t the only reason that Chief Justice Johnson and cannabis advocacy groups are outraged. Not only is Howard set to spend nearly two decades in prison, he also will not be eligible for parole, suspension of sentence or probation, which are often allowed for crimes widely considered to be much more severe. In Louisiana’s felony system that breaks up crimes into seven categories, non-violent offenders are frequently released after 25% of a sentence while even some violent offenders have their sentences commuted after 55% of time served. Additionally, some sex offenders are even allowed to be released after 75% of a sentence.
More than just questioning the legality and seemingly arbitrary nature of the court’s decision, Johnson further lambasted the court on practical terms, citing the extremely high cost of holding a prisoner for nearly two decades. Johnson pointed out that the average inmate costs $23,000 a year, which will add up to more than $400,000 over the course of Howard’s sentence before inflation is calculated into the equation. Even if the sentencing wasn’t arbitrary or against cultural sentiment, Johnson argues that it still reinforces an impractical legal system that leaves taxpayers with the extensive bill.
This line of criticism also falls right in line with justice reform advocates that point out the often ludicrous spending on incarceration. By 2015, the price tag of federal prisoners had swollen from around $1 billion in the mid-1980s to nearly $7 billion thanks to more than eight times the number of federal prisoners. By comparison, a review by the Prison Policy Institute pointed out that states have seen an even more radical increase in incarceration rates over the same time span, with much of the trend having to do with the ongoing war against drugs. Additionally, states like Louisiana and Alabama have consistently held higher incarceration rates than the national average.
While the tug of war over sentencing continues, Johnson also offered her own idea of what sentencing should be in this case, once again reflecting a shift in attitudes towards cannabis in particular, and drug offenders in general. Citing the lack of evidence that Howard had any intent to distribute, Johnson said that a more appropriate action would be to clear Howard’s conviction and replace it with a more standardized possession verdict, dramatically lightening his sentencing. Although Gary Howard isn’t likely to be the last to have a harsh sentence related to cannabis possession, high-ranking officials, even in largely anti-marijuana states like Louisiana, continue to highlight the many issues with such severe sentencing.
On Monday May 16th, a medical marijuana bill that enables previous legislation to become functional, was forwarded to Gov. John Bel Edwards for his signature. Three days later, the bill was signed into law.
Medical Marijuana in Louisiana has been slow to start. The program began last year, but there were no provisions for how the program would be regulated, how medical cannabis would be cultivated and who would oversee the growing operations. Republican Senator Fred Mills sponsored the bill in an effort to get Louisiana’s medical cannabis program up and running. In the meantime, patients have been waiting for years for safe access to medical marijuana.
“The wait was excruciating, but so worth it,” said medical marijuana advocate Katie Corkern, who wants to treat her son Connor’s epilepsy with the drug. “I woke up this morning and was thinking, it’s not going to pass because I’ve been doing so much research. There were people who I thought were definitely going to vote for it who changed their minds.”
The House offered no debate, and the bill passed 22-14.
The program will be limited and will take time to implement, requiring patients to wait an additional one to two years. That time will be spent selecting an official grower approved by the state and licensing up to ten distributors. Louisiana State University and Southern University have until September 1st to decide whether or not they want to participate as official growers. If neither choose to participate, the state will select a private company. A 7 percent tax based on the grower’s sales to the distributors will be paid to the Department of Agriculture, who will be responsible for regulation.
Along with cancer, spastic quadriplegia (a type of cerebral palsy) and glaucoma, qualifying conditions that are being added as a result of the new bill include epilepsy and other seizure disorders, HIV/AIDS, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain, severe nausea, anorexia, Crohn’s disease, ALS, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis. Smokable medical cannabis will not be allowed in Louisiana, but rather an oil or tincture form that can be administered and ingested orally.
A small but significant change was made to the bill’s language, based on concerns by physicians. The word “prescription” was changed to “recommendation” so that doctors could protect themselves from federal drug laws and maintain their DEA licensing.
Opposition to the bill came mostly from law enforcement, who feared that a medical marijuana would lead to rampant, unregulated use of marijuana within the state. These concerns were ultimately set aside when lawmakers and citizens described the suffering of their loved ones with debilitating medical conditions.
Possessing personal amounts of cannabis in New Orleans will no longer be considered a criminal offense as of June 21, 2016. The New Orleans city council approved the ordinance on March 17, and Mayor Landrieu signed it on March 23.
The ordinance, introduced by council member Susan Guidry, allows law enforcement offers in The Big Easy to write offenders tickets in lieu of making arrests. Any issued marijuana possession tickets may also come with fines. First time offenders may receive a ticket with a fine of $40, the second time the fine increases to $60, and the third time increases to $80. If a person is caught in possession four or more times, they may be responsible for paying a fine of $100.
Personal possession is considered to be any amount of 14 grams or less (about one-half an ounce).
While the city of New Orleans is practicing policy reform, state law remains the same. This means that technically, officers can still arrest anyone for possession. Smoking cannabis in public will also remain illegal.