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VOL. 131 | NO. 190 | Thursday, September 22, 2016

Pot Decriminalization Nears Final Vote

By Bill Dries

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One of the state’s two largest cities has decriminalized possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana. And the other city set the stage for a final vote on a similar measure next month.

The final vote Tuesday, Sept. 20, by the Metro Nashville Council could be one of several factors influencing the final vote Oct. 4 by the Memphis City Council.

The Memphis council approved the ordinance on second reading Tuesday as part of a larger consent agenda with other unrelated items.

The council vote in October and Tuesday’s final vote in Nashville have also triggered several proposals.


• State Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis said Tuesday he will renew his bill in the Legislature that would permit cities to hold referendums on whether to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

• Shelby County Commissioners Van Turner and Reginald Milton have said they are preparing to introduce an ordinance should the Memphis ordinance win approval next month that would do the same thing in the unincorporated county outside Memphis and the six suburban towns and cities.

• State Rep. William Lamberth of Cottontown, Tenn., has said he could sponsor a bill in the Legislature that would strip Memphis and/or Nashville of transportation funds that move through the state if either or both cities approve decriminalization ordinances.

The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators announced Tuesday its endorsement of the Memphis ordinance during a City Hall press conference.


And State Sen. Lee Harris of Memphis termed Lamberth’s proposal a “temper tantrum” that would meet with “deep resistance” from other legislators.

A bill Lamberth sponsored on state DUI penalties for underage drinkers led federal authorities to threaten to withhold $60 million in transportation funding to the state. The Legislature repealed the measure in a special legislative session earlier this month.

Harris also questioned the legality of Lamberth’s proposal on the pot proposals.

“There is no such thing as state funding,” Harris said, referring to road project funding which flows through the state from the federal government. “There is only a state match.”

City Council member Berlin Boyd said his proposal is the leading edge of a “drastic necessity for change” starting with the priorities of the local criminal justice system.

“This will change the dynamics,” Boyd said before the Memphis council vote Tuesday. “This is the part that saddens me the most. Since I’ve been having this discussion it’s all has been about the dollars.

“Where the money goes – how much money it’s going to take away from this court – that court. How much money the state will lose if they don’t have this fee. Guess what? It’s not about fees. It’s about people. I’m here to legislate and change the lives of people. I’m not worried about fees, we can figure that out.”

Parkinson agreed, saying there are two kinds of crime.

“We have crimes that make you mad and we have crimes that make you scared,” he said. “Our focus needs to be on the crimes that make you scared – not on individuals that are walking around with small amounts of marijuana in their pockets.”

Boyd and Harris said the ordinance is a way of redirecting priorities past getting the size of the Memphis police force to 2,400 or 2,500 from the current level of 2,000. From there, they say the police department should shift to more community policing, but won’t be able to if police are pursuing low-level, non-violent crimes in which it takes two hours or more to book a suspect on misdemeanor possession.

Police Director Michael Rallings is opposed in principle to Boyd’s proposal. He also thinks any final decision by Memphis leaders should wait to see what Nashville’s experience is with decriminalization.

Rallings argues that police officers rarely arrest someone on just a single possession of marijuana charge and that marijuana possession is often a secondary charge to more serious charges.

He also has said that as police director he can’t be seen as endorsing what looks to be a legalization of marijuana.


Boyd says his measure is not legalization of pot or even a start to legalization.

He also wasn’t offering any head counts on how the council vote will go in October on third and final reading. But he cited “the momentum, the support via email, the fact that this makes sense, the fact that our police are short over 400-some officers” as being in his favor.

“I think that my colleagues will have to agree in order to address the population we are dealing with in the city of Memphis and give them a second chance and permeate socioeconomic justice,” he said. “If not, we will tell the story and say that these council members don’t feel your life matters.”

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