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VOL. 131 | NO. 168 | Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Memphis City Council's Pot Debate Fires Up Larger Issues

By Bill Dries

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The Memphis City Council’s move to decriminalize possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana started with a mix of long-running themes about mass incarceration, the best use of police resources and the message the ordinance would send about drug use.

“Stop driving and having weed in your car. Then you won’t get arrested,” council member Janis Fullilove said Tuesday, Aug. 23, during the Memphis City Council’s first discussion of a proposal to decriminalize possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana. The full council is to vote on the first of three readings next month.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

And there were lots of questions about unintended consequences – legal and otherwise. The council committee discussion Tuesday, Aug. 23, ended with five votes to send the ordinance to the full council for a vote on the first of three readings Sept. 6.

The same five council members voted down an earlier move to delay any council vote on the issue until October.

“We were elected to legislate,” began council member Berlin Boyd, the sponsor of the ordinance that would allow Memphis police the option of writing a ticket with a $50 fine for possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana. “Police are the law enforcement agency. … Mass incarceration is an issue. Look at the time it takes to process individuals that are being arrested for small quantities of marijuana.”

Council member Janis Fullilove was one of two council members who voted against the proposal in committee. She argued the council’s role is “to enhance the lives of our citizens.”

“You talk about our responsibility to our citizens,” she said to Boyd. “Stop driving and having weed in your car. Then you won’t get arrested. I think responsible weed smokers smoke their joints at home.”

As council members began laughing, Fullilove added, “I mean that’s what I actually think.”

Council member Joe Brown said marijuana use leads to crack cocaine and to heroin. He also said drug dealers would carry smaller amounts for sale with such an ordinance.

“Why give somebody an opportunity to sell drugs from their automobile?” Brown said. “That’s what is going to happen. They can get closer to schools.”

Boyd said he didn’t want to debate whether marijuana is a “gateway” to other drugs.

“I’ve never known anyone smoking a joint to say, ‘Get me a needle,’” Boyd said. “There’s no concrete evidence to prove one way or another.”

Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings said he opposes the proposal. He held up a bag of joints that he said is less than half an ounce in weight.

“We used to call that a lot of dope on the street,” Rallings said of his days as a patrol police officer. “The way the ordinance is written could affect the person who is the dope dealer.”

Rallings also questioned whether the ordinance would conflict with state laws on drug possession.

Boyd points to a Nashville ordinance that was approved last week on the first of three readings.

“My issue is I want to make sure we are not trying to promote the use of marijuana,” Rallings countered. “If it impacts your ability to get a job or maintain a job, I think we need to be very careful in how we approach that.”

But council member Martavius Jones, like Boyd, said the ordinance is not a bid to legalize marijuana possession.

“We’re not saying we are going to reduce the restrictions,” Jones argued. “We’re taking the societal cost, the cost of incarceration – that’s what we are removing. We are not saying do not apply common sense in everyday life. Operationally it frees us … to really concentrate on the things that we need to do.”

Boyd and Jones also said enforcement of marijuana laws is disproportionately higher among African-Americans in Shelby County and in Memphis.

“Do we seriously think that black people smoke more marijuana than white people?” Jones asked. “No. We remove part of the discretion to basically say, ‘OK, you are going to get a slap on the wrist for the amount you have. But you are going to jail.’”

Boyd said some business leaders support the measure, but none are willing to say so publicly.

Council member Worth Morgan, however, said he isn’t sure the council should change the ordinance unless state laws are changed by the Tennessee Legislature on marijuana.

“This is something that might need to be done at the state level,” Morgan said. “We are basically fighting in the wrong arena. … I think we are spinning our wheels a little bit here and this is not our responsibility.”

Morgan proposed a delay in any council action until October to allow the formation of a task force. But it was voted down. Morgan abstained on the committee vote recommending the ordinance to the full council.

Boyd expressed some frustration about the call for a task force.

“Whenever it comes to black people, ‘Let’s just talk. Let’s put a committee together. We’ll be fine,’” he said. “We have to be intentional to make the changes.”

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