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VOL. 132 | NO. 25 | Friday, February 3, 2017

Reducing Felony Possession Charges Aim of Parkinson’s Pot Bill

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Rep. Antonio Parkinson says his legislation dealing with marijuana isn’t designed to decriminalize pot but to reduce felony possession charges – and the stumbling blocks attached to them – in addition to saving the state money.

Antonio Parkinson

Parkinson filed legislation in the General Assembly increasing the amount of marijuana a person can possess to an ounce from a half-ounce before they’re automatically charged with felony possession for distribution.

“It really strips away the automatic intent to distribute if there’s no evidence of it,” Parkinson says.

People caught with less than an ounce of pot still could be charged with a misdemeanor, he says. But they wouldn’t face the difficulty of having a felony conviction on their record, and the state wouldn’t have to cope with detaining people large numbers of people arrested for relatively small amounts of marijuana.

Preliminary figures show the state could save $956,000 in inmate expenses with this legislation, according to Parkinson.

“The main thing is we don’t want them getting felonies, and the other thing is we need to free up space in our prison system for the real violent criminals,” Parkinson says.

He points toward a recent incident in DeSoto County, Mississippi, in which a man with a violent criminal history shot two deputies. Authorities there said the man shouldn’t have been out of prison, according to Parkinson.

In addition, Parkinson says police officers shouldn’t be tied up spending hours working on felony arrests that he contends “are not necessary.”

The Memphis Police Department had not analyzed the legislation when asked for comment Wednesday, but spokeswoman Lt. Karen Rudolph said MPD Director Michael Rallings would “never be a proponent of smoking marijuana.”

If the measure becomes law, the department will enforce it, Rudolph says. Yet she adds Rallings believes smoking marijuana is counterproductive for obtaining and keeping a job, among other reasons.

“He’s never going to think that’s a good idea,” she says.

Parkinson says his legislation shouldn’t clash with another bill filed by Rep. William Lamberth to turn back ordinances passed in Memphis and Nashville allowing police to hand out civil citations for possession of small amounts of marijuana rather than arrest people for misdemeanor possession.

“I think his bill will tell local governments they can’t supersede what state law says,” Parkinson says.

Lamberth’s legislation would overturn local laws that don’t match state penalties dealing with the control of drugs and narcotics and circumvent local ordinances on drug possession.

The Sumner County Republican says his bill follows up on an opinion by Attorney General Herbert Slatery who determined the Memphis and Nashville ordinances would not hold up to a legal challenge based on state law and the Constitution.

Lamberth says he is trying to ensure the state law is applied equally. He points out Memphis agreed to hold off on its ordinance and work with the state on criminal justice report while Nashville decided to move ahead with its ordinance.

Nevertheless, Parkinson points out local governments have several ordinances containing lesser punishments than those contained in state law, such as fines for littering.

“Just so we’re consistent,” Parkinson says.

He predicts legislation will be proposed to “undergird” what Nashville and Memphis passed in their ordinances.

Lamberth, who chairs the House Criminal Justice Committee, says he can’t comment on Parkinson’s legislation until he reads it, but he points out it is likely part of a bigger conversation the Legislature will have this session on criminal justice and sentencing.

“I think what we’re trying to do as a state is really decide what qualifies as safe and what punishments need to be dealt out in crimes for violent offenders, multiple offenders, drug dealers and folks that are dangerous,” Lamberth says.

Reform needs to ensure repeat violent offenders are held as long as possible while allowing for treatment, probation and other services for non-violent, low-level offenders. He points out the state hasn’t taken a comprehensive look at sentencing since 1989.

“Broadly speaking, we are embarking on a criminal justice reform journey here,” he says, potentially to rewrite the entire criminal code.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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