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VOL. 132 | NO. 61 | Monday, March 27, 2017

State House Votes to Block Memphis, Nashville Pot Ordinances

By Sam Stockard

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Setting up a Senate debate on state pre-emption of Nashville and Memphis marijuana laws, the state House has approved legislation striking down local ordinances giving police discretion to hand out citations for small amounts of pot.

(shutterstock.com)

The Senate is expected to take up the matter Monday evening after the House voted 65-28, with one abstention, to clarify that state law overrides local government regulations involving drugs and similar substances. Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill.

Though Memphis passed an ordinance in 2016 enabling officers to issue a $50 citation for possession of less than an ounce of weed versus making an arrest on a Class B misdemeanor, the city put a hold on the new ordinance after the state attorney general issued an opinion saying the new rules are unconstitutional.

House debate focused on the age-old arguments surrounding marijuana use as well as the battle between Tennessee’s biggest cities and the state over local control of rules and regulations. For the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. William Lamberth, a former assistant district attorney from Sumner County, the matter is a question of equity.

Lamberth contends enforcement of marijuana laws can’t be left to the “whim” of law enforcement officers on the side of the road.

“Every single person should face the same set of laws. … We’re talking about criminal laws,” Lamberth said, explaining the that bill deals only with Class B misdemeanors and above.

State Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican, agreed, making note of a lawsuit filed over inequitable legal treatment of young people.

“So I think these local ordinances could put the same thing in play, where we have those who are poor and minorities getting the state fine and 11 months 29 days and those that are more affluent being let off the hook,” White said. “That’s the way it works a lot of times in our society.”

State Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat who has been proposing medical marijuana laws for years, reminded lawmakers they pass laws constantly affecting the ability of local governments to operate.

“This legislation is not about cannabis. I submit to you this legislation is about whether you support or don’t support local control,” Jones said. “If you want to take local control away from your governments, this is the bill to do that.”

East Tennessee Republican Jeremy Faison, who sponsored legislation this session to legalize medical marijuana, pointed out Lamberth gave a nod toward allowing law officers to maintain discretion over speeding and open alcohol containers in a vehicle and continued his push to decriminalize use of the cannabis plant. He noted 45 states have lowered their penalties for marijuana while half the states in the nation have adopted medical marijuana laws.

“We need to look at criminal justice and realize what’s killing us and what’s not,” said Faison, arguing drinking and driving kills more people than using marijuana.

Debate also focused on uniformity of ordinances and law enforcement statewide and whether cities and counties have the authority to set up their own rules for criminal law enforcement.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, contended laws have never been enforced the same way across Tennessee.

“There comes a time that we as state legislators have to take a stand and protect local governments,” he said.

Afterward, Parkinson called Lamberth’s effort for “uniform” enforcement of laws “preposterous and hypocritical.”

“What has happened is he’s singled out just the parts of the law that he doesn’t like, and that’s marijuana,” Parkinson said.

Democratic Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, during floor debate, pointed out the courts should decide whether Nashville and Memphis ordinances can be followed, rather than the Legislature setting the rules in a “piecemeal” manner.

Other legislators argued the state set up the federal government and local governments and, therefore, can tell them how to operate.

Lamberth, however, cited statistics from Metro Nashville government showing 37 people have been given civil citations for marijuana possession since the ordinance passed last year compared to 888 people who’ve been charged with misdemeanors and cited to court.

“It’s not personal to me, I don’t have a vendetta,” Lamberth said in an interview after the House action. “But at the same time, I do insist that people follow the law, and I’m very passionate about that, because it matters to our society. You can’t have rich people being held to a different standard than poor people. You can’t have people from the good part of town being held to a different standard than the people from the bad part of town. You can’t have people that look one way be treated differently than people who look another way. You just can’t have that, at least not in the country I love.”

Ultimately, though, Lamberth said the federal government, which criminalizes marijuana, needs to give states the leeway to set their own rules.

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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