Nashville is destined to become the first city in Tennessee to eliminate the criminal penalties associated with the possession of marijuana.
On Tuesday, the Metro Council gave final approval for a decriminalization ordinance that was designed to stop those people busted with up to a half-ounce of weed from being carted off to jail. The measure, which advanced in a vote of 35-to-3, would simply give officers with the Metro Nashville Police Department the ability to slap minor pot offenders with a $50 fine or 10 hours of community service rather than entering them into the criminal justice system.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, who previously stated that she is “generally supportive” of decriminalization ordinances, told the Tennessean that she plans to sign the measure into law.
“This legislation is a positive step forward in addressing the overly punitive treatment of marijuana possession in our state that disproportionately impacts low-income and minority residents,” Barry said in a statement.
There were some concerns earlier this week that the Metro Council might cave under the pressure of a Tennessee lawmaker who recently threatened to strip the city of its highway funding if it moved forward with decriminalization. State Representative William Lamberth, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, said he would file legislation in the upcoming session that would remove over $120 million from the city’s budget if they dared continue down what he called a “reckless and unjust path.”
But Councilman Dave Rosenberg, the man who brought the decriminalization ordinance to the table, said Nashville would not back down based a threat of state interference.
Barry, too, said Nashville would not operate “based on what the state may or may not do.”
Unfortunately, while the Metro Council’s move to decriminalize marijuana possession throughout the city is being hailed a major victory by its supporters, there are no guarantees the ordinance will actually prevent petty pot offenders from being charged with a crime. That’s because Nashville police officers will have the authority to exercise their own discretion when it comes to deciding which offenders go to jail and who simply pays a fine.
“It is important to stress that this ordinance is not a license to sell, possess or use marijuana in Nashville,” Barry said. “When this ordinance becomes law, police officers will still have the ability to make arrests or issue state criminal citations for marijuana possession as circumstances warrant, which is a Class A misdemeanor under state law.”
This means some pot offenders could still face penalties of up to a year in jail and fines reaching $2,500.
Although Metro Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson has not yet clarified exactly the criteria that will be used to determine whether an offender receives a ticket or a trip to jail, similar ordinances passed in other cities typically rely on a person’s criminal history and whether or not a more serious, often violent, crime is wrapped up in the discovery of marijuana.
The Memphis City Council is scheduled to take up the first of three votes on a similar decriminalization ordinance at the beginning of next week. However, the proposal does not have the full support of Memphis Police Director Mike Rallings, nor Mayor Jim Strickland, which stands to sabotage the effort. Rallings wants to see what happens, first, in Nashville before moving forward with a comparable plan, while Strickland would like to discuss the issue with the drug court before choosing sides.
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