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Nashville Referendum Could Protect Pot Offenders

Although the state of Tennessee has not made a lot of noise in recent years with regard to changing its prohibitionary stance on marijuana, advocates in Nashville have taken it upon themselves to introduce a measure that would prevent the city from spending money to bring down the hammer on individuals caught in possession of small amounts of weed.

Never before have the residents of Music City banned together in an effort to pass a measure aimed at crippling the city from prosecuting low-level pot offenders, which is a move that, even if it passes, could prove challenging to uphold since state law considers the possession of any amount of marijuana a criminal offense. However, this potential conflict has not stopped the Tennessee chapter of NORML from launching a signature-collecting campaign to get the issue on the general election ballot in August.

While the language of the petition is careful not to throw around the word “decriminalize,” that’s essentially what the measure is meant to do by making it illegal for the municipality to spend any portion of its budget to prosecute adults found in possession of two ounces of marijuana or less. The measure also includes a provision entitled “private right to action,” which gives individuals the right to take legal action against the city if prosecutors pursue criminal charges associated with this offense.

“We would like to see resources devoted toward violent criminals, thieves and people who are needing to be locked away instead of nonviolent offenders,” Tennessee NORML’s Doak Patton told The Tennessean. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been pushing this.”

The organization must collect 6,877 verified signatures, or 10 percent of Nashville voters, before May 18 to qualify for a spot on the ballot.

There is some concern that if the measure is passed, it would blatantly contradict state law. However, legal experts claim this is not the case since the initiative seeks only to eliminate the use of city funds for the prosecution of pot offenders. It “does not attempt to in any way undermine state or federal or state law,” said NORML attorney Daniel Horwitz.

While there is a distinct possibility the amendment will be successful, the question of whether it is a violation of state law may prevent it from making any significant difference in how pot offenders are handled in Music City.

Frederick Agree, a Nashville attorney, recently wrote a piece for The Tennessean, stating that millions of dollars of state revenue are being spent every year to prosecute low-level marijuana offenders, instead of spending those resources locking up hardcore hooligans.

“Tennessee has been consistently in the top five most violent states, in part because we simply do not have the resources to keep violent offenders locked up and out of our communities,” wrote Agree, suggesting the state should eliminate the black market and pour those resources into making Tennessee a safer place to live. “What is more important: keeping violent criminals out of our communities or nonviolent marijuana offenders?” he wrote.


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