VOL. 9 | NO. 40 | Saturday, October 1, 2016
The Memphis News Editorial
Editorial: Pot Ordinance Isn’t Perfect, But It Still Has Benefits
The Memphis City Council is scheduled to vote this week on a much-discussed proposal that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. What’s at stake is about more than weed.
It’s really about beginning to level the playing field in the criminal justice system where too often, nonviolent crimes like possession of pot put a disproportionate number of young black males in a system that can taint opportunities for years, or even entire lives.
If the ordinance is approved, police who catch someone with less than a half-ounce of marijuana would have the discretion to issue a $50 ticket instead of making an arrest. Under the current law, a conviction carries a fine of up to $2,500 and up to a year in jail.
Possessing and smoking pot is illegal in Tennessee and will still be illegal after the City Council’s vote, no matter which way it goes. And Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings says he can’t endorse the measure because it could send the wrong message that it’s OK to use marijuana.
Meanwhile, Councilman Berlin Boyd, who sponsored the ordinance, and other supporters of the measure are adamant that approving decriminalization will prevent many younger black Memphians from getting caught up in a system that can be hard to escape from. State lawmakers Sen. Lee Harris and Rep. Antonio Parkinson and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators fully support the measure as well.
Criminal justice system disparity has been a vocal complaint of the Black Lives Matter group in Memphis, as well as similar groups nationwide, and Boyd has gone as far as to say that a vote against this ordinance would be a statement from the city that black lives don’t matter.
Given this backdrop and the controversy that naturally comes with marijuana use, it won’t be an easy vote.
But Memphis isn’t an island in considering such a measure. The City Council’s Tuesday, Oct. 4, vote comes two weeks after the Nashville Metro Council voted 35-3 to approve a similar ordinance that gives police the discretion to issue a fine instead of jail time.
Proponents there also pointed to the racial disparity of those going through the criminal justice system as a reason to lessen the penalty.
Memphis’ ordinance, like Nashville’s, isn’t perfect. There will be those who say giving police the discretion to make arrests leaves open the gate that has led to past claims of racial discrimination; others would point out that taking that discretion away comes with its own set of drawbacks.
Even though the measure is problematic in some ways, we believe the progressive vote would be to follow Nashville’s lead and approve the ordinance. A vote against would maintain the status quo, something many Memphians, not just Black Lives Matter supporters, are tired of seeing again and again.
It’s time to stop talking about criminal justice changes and start making them.