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VOL. 131 | NO. 178 | Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Council to Vote on Pot Ordinance, Hear Coliseum Proposals

By Bill Dries

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It may be one of numerous items on the Memphis City Council’s consent agenda Tuesday, Sept. 6, voted on all at one time.

Or the first of three readings of an ordinance that would allow police to write a citation with a fine for possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana could be met with an attempt to vote it down.

The council meets at 3:30 p.m. at City Hall, 125 N. Main St.

A determination of whether the item remains on the consent agenda, which is the normal practice, or is voted on separately on first reading could be indicated during the council’s executive session at 2 p.m.


The proposal by council member Berlin Boyd has become the latest front in the city’s ongoing debate about criminal justice system reform.

Since the Aug. 23 council committee discussion ending with a 5-2 vote to recommend the ordinance to the full body, Boyd has amended it to increase fines for multiple offenders and exempt juveniles from its provisions.

Supporters of the measure have added statements from the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen backing the measure.

In a letter to council chairman Kemp Conrad and the council in general, the 17-member caucus cited a racial disparity in low-level drug offenses in which more African-Americans are arrested on those charges.

Eleven of the 17 caucus members are Memphis Democrats.

“Costs to locals, states and municipalities are burdensome, law enforcement has less time to focus on more serious offenses, and courts are bogged down with the handling of minor infractions,” the statement reads. “Also, it is important to remember that our focus is on decriminalization, not making marijuana legal.”

Cohen has been vocal in Washington Capitol Hill hearings in his criticism of federal drug enforcement officials who have said pot is a gateway drug. He’s also been highly critical of federal policies on drug crimes.

Last week, Cohen, a former legal adviser to the Memphis Police Department, in a written statement, said passage of the ordinance would “improve community relations and prevent police officers and officers of the court from expending valuable court time and resources on minor possession cases.

“Most importantly, it would keep young people in this city, disproportionately African-Americans, from being subject to convictions that can affect their future or current employment and create a barrier to scholarship and housing opportunities.”


But Cohen’s point is the point Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings made in council committee two weeks ago in opposing the ordinance.

“My issue is I want to make sure we are not trying to promote the use of marijuana,” he said. “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. … The police director will never promote dope smoking because it negatively affects a person’s ability to get a job and maintain a job.”

A similar ordinance making its way through the Nashville Metro Council has picked up the backing of the Davidson County sheriff.

But local law enforcement leaders remain either opposed or silent on the Memphis proposal.

The most vocal opponent is Rallings, who has said marijuana is a “gateway” drug that leads to crack cocaine and heroin.

At City Hall two weeks ago, Boyd and Rallings each said they didn’t want to debate whether or not marijuana is a gateway drug.

In other business, council members will field any plans for the mothballed Mid-South Coliseum at the executive session.

The council approved a Coliseum lease by Wiseacre Brewing Co. two weeks ago. The agreement begins with a four- to six-month due diligence period in which Wiseacre would determine whether locating a brewery in the Coliseum is feasible.

Wiseacre puts down a refundable $25,000 deposit during that time.

If the idea is feasible, the agreement moves to a 30-year lease at $25,000 a month.

The city would also get 30 percent of any sublease payments above $25,000 from other tenants brought in by Wiseacre.

Those terms become final Tuesday with the council’s approval of the minutes from the Aug. 23 council session.

Chairman Kemp Conrad pledged at the Aug. 23 meeting that the council would hear any other proposals. But he also indicated that it is unlikely the council will reverse its decision on Wiseacre.

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