Both Nashville and Memphis passed citywide ordinances earlier this year decriminalizing the possession of marijuana in small amounts. The goal of these measures is to prevent otherwise law-biding citizens from being entered into the criminal justice system simply for holding a little weed. In doing so, officials hoped that law enforcement will have more time to focus on more pressing issues, like rape, murder and all of the other monstrous indiscretions that typically frighten the majority of civil society.
However, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery claims the decriminalization ordinances are worthless in the eyes of the state. In a recent opinion, Slatery said the two cities could not give their respective police departments the freedom to issue small fines to those caught in possession of up to a half ounce of marijuana because that would go against the grain of state law.
“A municipal ordinance that attempts to regulate a field that is regulated by state statute cannot stand if it is contradictory to state law,” Slatery wrote. “An ordinance that makes possession of one-half ounce or less of marijuana a municipal offense and allows an officer to issue a municipal civil citation in lieu of a criminal warrant is not permissible.”
The Nashville Metro Council passed an ordinance back in September allowing police officers to simply issue a $50 fine or 10 hours community service for people found in possession of under a half ounce of pot. An identical measure was passed shortly thereafter in Memphis.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s office told the Tennessean that it plans to continue using the decriminalization ordinance until state officials force them into submission—if that is even possible.
What it all seems to come down to is whether the local decriminalization ordinances interfere with the girth of the Tennessee Drug Control Act of 1989, which makes “simple possession or casual exchange” of marijuana a criminal offense. According to Slatery’s opinion, the ordinances recently passed by Nashville and Memphis completely eliminate a district attorney general’s discretion when it comes to prosecuting these crimes.
“If a police officer is allowed to issue a municipal civil citation, in lieu of a criminal warrant, for the offense of marijuana possession, a district attorney general is unable to exercise his or her discretion to prosecute the offense as a state law offense under the Drug Control Act,” Slatery wrote.
But the lawmakers responsible for designing the ordinances argue that they are no different than any other local laws, for example, those for littering and seat belts, which differ from state code.
The Metro Department of Law is now analyzing the AG’s opinion.
“We passed a sound ordinance that stakeholders found to be sound policy and attorneys agreed didn’t conflict with state law,” Metro Councilman Dave Rosenberg, primary sponsor of Nashville’s decriminalization ordinance, said in a Twitter post. “Metro Legal is going to analyze the attorney general’s opinion and we’ll go from there.”
Doak Patton, who oversees the Tennessee chapter of NORML, said the AG’s opinion is just an example of overreaching politicians.
“The same people that talk about letting locals have more control are the same ones fighting local people having a voice,” Patton told HIGH TIMES.
Although it is too early to tell what the outcome of this battle will be, Patton says Nashville will be the municipality that takes the debate out of the ring and into a back alley somewhere for a full blown bare-knuckle brawl.
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