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VOL. 131 | NO. 199 | Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Council Passes Pot Ordinance 7-6

By Bill Dries

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The Memphis City Council gave final approval Tuesday, Oct. 4, to an ordinance that gives Memphis Police the discretion to write a ticket with a $50 fine for possession of a half ounce or less of marijuana.

The council vote following much debate at City Hall was 7-6 in favor of the move to a civil penalty instead of a criminal misdemeanor.

Council members Berlin Boyd, Edmund Ford Jr., Reid Hedgepeth, Martavius Jones, Patrice Robinson, Philip Spinosa and Jamita Swearengen were the majority in favor of the measure.

Council members Joe Brown, Frank Colvett, Janis Fullilove, Worth Morgan, Bill Morrison and chairman Kemp Conrad voted no.

Both sides in the council debate stressed that the measure does not decriminalize as a policy or legalize pot possession of small amounts in Memphis.

Most of the comments from citizens before the council debate were about legalization.

Opponents of the measure on the council questioned whether Memphians would take the vote as just that.

“We have some ignorant people in our city,” said Fullilove who also questioned whether passage of the measure would become a “political kickball.”

Boyd, who sponsored the measure, said he will not try to use the ordinance as the tip of a spear toward legalization. Instead he said he would use the council vote to make further reforms to the criminal justice system away from pot possession that he and other council members favoring the ordinance cited in voting for it.

Those include limiting and curtailing court costs and fines that keep nonviolent. offenders for relatively minor offenses immersed in a criminal justice system with a record that makes it difficult for them to get a job and lead a more productive life.

“We’re trying to reduce some of the fines, reduce some of the felonies to help those individuals to get jobs and get an education … and get on with their lives,” Boyd said. “We’re in the Bible belt. To have a measure like this moving into this direction, it shows that we are finally becoming somewhat progressive in our thinking.”

Shelby County Commissioners Van Turner and Reginald Milton have said they will push for a similar ordinance in the unincorporated county if the council approved the ordinance Tuesday.

Boyd quarreled with numbers from Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich showing police arrest approximately 300 people a year on misdemeanor marijuana possession charges.

Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings said his numbers show 655 arrests on the charge with no other greater charges in 2015 and 521 so far this year.

Boyd said court records show it’s 2,400.

Rallings questioned how the citations for violating the ordinance will be handled in City Court and whether City Court Judges can allow someone to serve community service hours instead of the fine, as provided for in the ordinance.

As a result, he said his officers who not begin using the option of a ticket with a $50 fine until the specific details of the move to City Court are established.

Although Rallings opposed the ordinance, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland did not express an opinion.

After the Tuesday council vote, Strickland said he supports “the intent of the ordinance – to less severely punish non violent offenders.”

“The city council’s debate, though, did not answer several important questions,” Strickland said in a written statement. “MPD will, in its discretion, utilize the ordinance as passed once the City Court is prepared to handle it.”

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