State Legislature Repeals Partial Marijuana Decriminalization in Nashville and Memphis

Seven months and 39 city citations later, the Tennessee legislature struck down Metro Nashville and Memphis ordinances that allowed for partial decriminalization of simple marijuana possession.

In September 2016, Nashville’s Metro Council approved the new ordinance to allow police officers the option to issue a $50 city citation or require 10 hours of community service for possession of less than one half-ounce of marijuana. State statute otherwise classifies this as a Class A misdemeanor, which holds a penalty of up to $2,500 in fines or one year in jail. Following the passage of Nashville’s decriminalization ordinance, Memphis passed similar measures.

House Bill 173, sponsored by Representative William Lamberth of Cottontown, Tenn., and signed into law by Governor Haslam in April this year, immediately superseded and revoked the ordinances passed in Davidson and Shelby counties and prevented the passage of any further city citations.

“No county, city, town, municipality, or metropolitan form of government has the authority by ordinance, resolution, regulation, or other local law to enact or adopt a sanction for conduct involving a drug or other substance if the sanction for that conduct is established by this part or title 53, chapter 11, as a criminal offense other than a Class C misdemeanor,” Tennessee Code now reads after the Tennessee General Assembly passed the 2017 bill.

During legislative debate over HB 173, Representative Mike Stewart of Nashville proposed an amendment that would exempt Nashville’s marijuana decriminalization ordinance from this new act.

“The (Attorney General) has stated that he believes that Metro’s ordinance is unconstitutional; Metro attorneys say the exact opposite,” Stewart said in his defense of Nashville’s ordinance. “Whoever’s right, we don’t need this bill today. If Metro’s ordinance is unconstitutional, we already have the bill in place and the proper response for somebody in Metro Nashville to take that issue to court and we’ll get a judge to decide whether the ordinance is unconstitutional or not.”

But Rep. Lamberth pointed out the Nashville ordinance giving officers the “option” to hand out a citation to some and a misdemeanor to others means that individuals committing the same crime would not be treated equally to one another.

“For my entire career as an attorney, I have stood for the principal that all men are created equal in this country, that everyone should be treated the same,” Lamberth said during the debate on an amendment to HB 173. “It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, it doesn’t matter how much change you’ve got in your pocket, it doesn’t matter which officer happens to come across you on the side of the road. What (Nashville) passed was an ordinance that would allow officers to discriminate against individuals based on their whim. Whether or not they wanted to issue a city citation or go under the state law that applies to every Tennessean equally.”

Advocates of the ordinances argued that the lighter penalty uses a common-sense alternative to criminal charges for a nonviolent, minor offense. Those levied with state sentence minimums for low quantities of marijuana face lifelong consequences in gaining employment, housing and education. The Metro ordinances were designed to grant police officers the discretion of issuing the city citations or community service hours in lieu of state criminal citations.

The officers rarely used the new city citation option anyway; since its passage at the Metro City Council in September, Nashville police officers had only issued 39 city citations, opposed to 1,082 state criminal citations.

“I don’t care whether you’re Republican or Democrat, I don’t care what you look like, I don’t care who you are or where you’re from. Surely to goodness we can all stand for the fact that every citizen should be treated equally in the eyes of the law,” Lamberth said. “Lady Justice is blind, sir, and Nashville took that blind off and insisted that their officers choose on the side of the road which penalties should be meted out. That is a decision for a judge and that ordinance set back criminal justice one hundred years.”

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