State Lawmakers Cancel Local Pot Decriminalization—But It Gets Worse

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Conservative Republicans are conservative, to a flaw. Big government is evil and bad and must be shunned at all turns, except when smaller government does something they don’t like. In which case: enter, stage right, Big Brother.

This is the lesson to draw from Tennessee, where state lawmakers in the Republican-dominated House voted on Thursday to block the limited marijuana decriminalization efforts undertaken by city councils in Nashville and Memphis.

That’s bad, and means racially skewed arrest rates in the state’s two urban areas—both of which have sizable populations of black people, who (of course) are the people most often arrested for marijuana possession—will continue. It also means possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana will still be a misdemeanor crime, with possession of more than a half-ounce a felony.

But wait! There’s more bad.

Nashville’s decriminalization effort was modest indeed. Police had the option to punish marijuana possession with a traffic ticket-like citation instead of a misdemeanor arrest, but had so far shown little interest in lighter punishment and kept on arresting. 

Since the law went into effect, 96 percent of marijuana encounters resulted in an arrest rather than the citation, a Nashville police spokesman told the Tennessean. (As for Memphis, cops there never even had the chance to try it out: interference from state officials led local lawmakers to put implementation on hold.)

Now, going forward, any local effort to create lighter drug penalties will be null-and-void.

The anti-decriminalization bill sponsored by Republican state Rep. William Lamberth “repeals any local law” that is inconsistent with state statutes, and also specifically forbids local governments from creating their own set of penalties, the newspaper reported.

Sad! But predictable.

This is the culmination of a concerted effort by state officials to meddle and ultimately undo lighter penalties for marijuana, and is part of an “onslaught” of state lawmakers “dictat[ing]” to locals what to do and how to do it, Memphis Rep. Antonio Parkinson told the newspaper.

In a stunning display of mental gymnastics, repeal sponsor Lamberth claimed he was motivated by discrimination… as in, wanting to make sure all marijuana penalties (which are not applied evenly across race and class) were applied equally. Behold his histrionics, ye mighty, and despair for future reform efforts:

As per the Tennessean:

“Lady justice is blind sir, and Nashville took that blind off and insisted that their officer choose on the side of the road what penalties should be meted out. That is a decision for a judge under our law and that ordinance set back criminal justice a hundred years,” he said.

At some point, this silly obstructionism will come back to haunt state lawmakers—the same lawmakers who decided not to even hold a vote on a medical marijuana bill, despite polling showing 52 percent support from rabid “tea party” conservatives. 

Some Tennessee politicians recognize this, including state House Speaker Beth Harwell, one of six Republicans to vote against the bill. Harwell is a hopeful to run for governor and knows she’ll need Nashville and Memphis, where more than 20 percent of all Tennessee residents live, in order to do it.

It’s not quite a done deal yet. If the state Senate also votes to intervene and undo local law—a vote is currently scheduled for Monday—the repeal effort will then go to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature.

In the meantime, please enjoy this burn from Nashville city councilman Dave Rosenberg, who is none too pleased about lawmakers from tiny hamlets dictating how to best run his city:

“The majority in the Tennessee House abandoned the principles of limited government and local control and ignored the will of the people of Nashville, instead yielding to the archaic Nixon-era hysteria of a small group of legislators who live outside of Nashville.”

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