Last fall two of Tennessee’s most famous cities – Nashville and Memphis – decided to take a leap of faith and move away from state law when it comes to simple marijuana possession when they passed marijuana decriminalization ordinances.
The first was Nashville back in September, who passed an ordinance that made possession of a half an ounce or less of cannabis a civil penalty, rather than a misdemeanor. Instead of jail time and an insanely high fine, offenders were expected to pay a $50 fine or complete 10 hours of community service.
Since its implementation, this civil penalty has been issued at least 27 times – all people who would have previously faced jail time up to a year and a fine of up to $2,500 as per state law. Sadly, in Memphis, the ordinance was never actually put into action because the Attorney General released a statement saying that in his opinion, the ordinances are illegal under state law because they give law enforcement the option to overlook state policies.
“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 said. “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.”
While concerns about having a patchwork of laws across the state are legitimate, the fact remains that the state is putting far too harsh a punishment on first time offenders with only a small amount of cannabis – and city lawmakers are tired of seeing resources wasted, people’s lives ruined and all the other harms that come out of these prohibitionist policies imposed by the state. All they did was merely give law enforcement a second option – the state law remained in place and officers could still make arrests at their discretion (however this is also sometimes a cause for concern when decriminalization ordinances pass at a local level).
“We should apply a reasonable standard statewide so that possession of very small amounts of marijuana doesn’t increase our jail population or place a financial strain on you,” Love said.
In a sort of act of retaliation against this repeal, two democratic lawmakers from Nashville, Representative Harold Love and Senator Jeff Yarbro, are expected to file a bill this week that would take simple possession from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class C misdemeanor statewide. If it were to pass, lowering the class of the offense would remove jail time from the equation all together – and the fine would be significantly reduced to no more than $50.
While it would still show up as a misdemeanor, this is the closest it seems the state will be able to come to decriminalization without the effect of a a number of local ordinances. We have to hope that this bill introduced by Love and Yarbro manages to pass, especially if the one introduced by Lamberth does, seeing as that one would make it illegal for cities or counties to pass ordinances such as the ones passed in Nashville and Memphis. If the only way to go is to do things on a statewide level, then lowering the severity of the offense for the entire state only makes sense.