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Tennessee Republicans Move to Undo Local Pot Decriminalization

marijuana arrest, pot prisoner, drug charges, jail
Photo by Getty Images

Like everywhere else in the South, marijuana isn’t legal in Tennessee. But since last fall, police in Nashville and Memphis have had a less-punitive alternative to an arrest and subsequent misdemeanor charge for someone caught possessing a small amount of cannabis. City councils in the state’s two largest cities both passed limited decriminalization efforts, which give cops the option of handing out a civil infraction—comparable to a parking ticket—for marijuana possession.

You can still be arrested and charged for marijuana possession, but if it’s less than a half-ounce, the cop might give you a break. Such a conservative and limited move is hardly legalization, but it’s nonetheless a significant step forward in the marijuana-unfriendly South. It’s also a big deal for civil liberties and racial justice advocates, as black people are arrested for marijuana possession at four times the rate of whites in Tennessee. As it happens, Memphis is a majority-black city, and Nashville is roughly 28 percent black.

Tennessee attorney general Herbert Slatery III is not black. Neither is William Lamberth, a state representative from the tiny hamlet of Cottontown and chairman of the Tennessee General Assembly’s House Criminal Justice Committee.We’re not saying that’s why Slatery declared both cities’ decriminalization efforts invalid, which was enough to scare Memphis into putting its decriminalization plan on hold.

And certainly it has nothing to do with Lamberth introducing state legislation this week that would repeal both cities’ limited decriminalization—and prohibit any other city going forward from passing drug laws that are “inconsistent” with state law going forward, as the Tennessean reported.

But for the otherwise-staunch Republicans to go big government and violate hallowed conservative principles, there has to be a good, solid reason. Take it away, Mr. Lamberth.

“We’ve never had cities that have just blatantly disregarded state criminal laws and just started making up their own criminal laws on their own,” Lamberth told the newspaper. (Join the party, Tennessee; cities in other states are going hog-wild with writing their own drug laws.)

“If that were to continue, you would have a hodgepodge of criminal laws throughout our state that no attorney, judge or individual would ever be able to understand or explain as to what penalties you may face where and when,” he added. “You can’t allow an officer at their whim to treat two different individuals who have potentially committed the same crime in drastically different ways depending on what that officer feels like at a given time.”

Here, Lamberth identifies the heart of the matter, if only by accident.

In Nashville, police have continued handing out the harsher misdemeanors. Marijuana possession has been punished under state law 815 times, as per the Tennessean, compared to only 27 of the local civil infractions. So surely Lamberth will be on board with Nashville’s Rep. Harold Love and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, who countered his repeal proposal with a plan that would reduce the penalty under Tennessee state law for marijuana possession to a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $50 fine.

According to the Tennessean: Lamberth said he applauds “Nashville and Memphis’ efforts to try to dive into criminal justice reform,” but added that they passed ordinances that are illegal under state law and violate the Tennessee Constitution and the U.S. Constitution…

Lamberth was a critic of Nashville and Memphis’ legislative efforts from the outset. During debate of the local marijuana bills, he had discussed a state bill that would have penalized either city financially by withholding state highway funds if they approved the ordinances.

Marijuana has made William Lamberth a constitutional scholar—one so agitated about what people in other places are doing about marijuana that he’s willing to threaten them with potholes. This is powerful stuff, indeed. Tennessee’s legislative session is just beginning and there’s no indication which proposal will succeed, but the posturing has just begun.

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