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03.01.16 5:01 AM ET

Will Louisiana Be the First Southern State to Legalize Weed?

Notorious for its strict marijuana laws, Louisiana is looking at legalized weed as a way to get out of debt. What will happen to its prisoners?

One of the harshest states on pot offenders is reportedly exploring the idea of a recreational marijuana program. Saddled with $850 million in state debts, experts say Louisiana’s move is less motivated by safety as it is by money.

The idea to offset a colossal deficit with legal pot was allegedly born out of concern from lawmakers backing two bills that may cause budget cuts. Combined with the news that Colorado raked in $900 million from its marijuana program in 2015, it may be enough to get conservative pot prohibitionists to change their tune.

“I think they’re looking at it strictly as a profit-driven, tax-based incentive,” Kevin Caldwell, executive director of Commonsense NOLA, a nonpartisan organization fighting for legalization, says of the rumblings about legalizing. Caldwell is excited about the legalization talk, and says New Orleans, which decriminalized it in 2010, has been paving the way.

But even Caldwell, who has devoted his life to the cause, isn’t getting his hopes up yet.

“I think it is more likely next session, once the politicians get the real blowback from the budget cuts,” he says. “Once the state sees cuts to things like social services and universities…I think that will reawaken some of the populism from our past, which, in this case, is a good thing.”

If the state does decide to move forward with the creation of a recreational marijuana program, it will be the most unlikely legalization story thus far. In the four states where marijuana is legal recreationally—Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon—police had generally been turning a blind eye to marijuana for decades.

But Louisiana is a different story. With the state’s exceptionally strict sentencing laws and a powerful anti-legalization sheriff’s association, it is one of the toughest places to get caught with pot. Notorious for putting nonviolent marijuana offenders behind bars—it’s a war that Louisiana sheriffs wage primarily with minorities.

According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, in 2010, African Americans made up 64 percent of marijuana possession arrests in Louisiana—despite making up just 32 percent of the state population. By these numbers, blacks in the state are three times more likely to be arrested for pot than whites, despite studies showing they use at the same rates (or less).

A subsequent ACLU report on the harshness of sentencing found Louisiana to have the highest number of prisoners (429) serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes—many of them for minor marijuana offenses. Ninety-one percent of the 429 are black, and the vast majority of them are housed at the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, which Caldwell calls “America’s last plantation.” One is a previously homeless man who was caught dealing less than $20 worth of marijuana.

The lengths at which Louisiana goes to enforce marijuana prohibition go beyond laws. Enforcing marijuana possession (combining police, judicial, and correctional fees) costs the state $46.4 million per year. “All these draconian measures we put on people and we’re still one of the most violent states in the country,” Caldwell says of the marijuana arrests. “Obviously the way we’re doing things doesn’t work. Obviously it’s time to change our paradigm.”

While the concept of legalizing marijuana to save the state’s budget seems to have been met with relatively mild responses, suggestions of the same—when framed as a safety issue— invoke panic and rage. After activists floated the idea of legalization to a local sheriff whose officers had just fatally shot a marijuana dealer, he reportedly went into a “fit of rage.”

“We’re thinking about decriminalizing marijuana and we think all of this shit is gonna go away when we do so? HELLO!” yelled Sheriff Newell Normand in a press video. “The havoc that it will wreak on our streets will be insurmountable.”

While it seems unlikely that legalization would cause havoc in the streets, there’s a good chance that it would prompt a judicial nightmare. The question being: What happens to people who are serving life for a drug once it becomes legal?

Maggie Ellinger-Locke, Louisiana legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, says this topic has yet to become a “large focus” of advocacy groups—not because it’s unimportant, but because, at least thus far, it hasn’t been such a pressing issue.

“States that have implemented a system of cannabis regulation typically have already decriminalized, and few people are incarcerated for simple possession,” Ellinger-Locke told The Daily Beast. “It is when you get to sales that matters become more controversial and that needs to be taken up separately.”

In April 2014, a Colorado woman succeeded at getting her marijuana possession conviction overturned, arguing that Amendment 64 retroactively decriminalized marijuana and therefore rendered her arrest null. Eillinger-Locke seems hopeful that, should Louisiana be next, it will do that same.

“Louisiana has some of the most extreme penalties for marijuana in the nation,” said Ellinger-Lock. “So perhaps retroactivity is more likely there.”

The Louisiana Sheriff’s Association did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment.

CORRECTION: An earlier headline stated that the four states where marijuana is legal recreationally are all blue states. In fact, Alaska is the second-reddest state in the nation.