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VOL. 132 | NO. 63 | Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Senate Douses Memphis and Nashville Pot Ordinances

By Sam Stockard

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State senators are intent on striking down Memphis and Nashville marijuana laws giving police discretion to hand out citations for possessing small amounts of pot.

Despite opposition from Shelby County and Davidson County legislators, the Senate voted 26-5 Monday to clarify that state law overrides local government regulations involving drugs and similar substances.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jack Johnson, a Franklin Republican who has opposed other measures adopted by the Metro Nashville City Council, pointed out the state attorney general opined that municipalities cannot write ordinances that conflict with state and federal law or constitutions.

“Let me tell you what a slippery slope is: when we start allowing municipalities to decide what state laws they want to enforce and which state laws they do not want to enforce. That is not a power granted to municipalities or any local government under the state constitution or Tennessee statute,” Johnson said.

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. Nashville has continued to use its ordinance in an effort to cut down on the number of people prosecuted on minor drug charges.

The bill easily passed the Republican-controlled body even though Memphis Democrats, Sen. Lee Harris and Sen. Sara Kyle, gave impassioned pleas against it.

Sen. Reginald Tate, a Memphis Democrat, voted for the override legislation Monday night while Sen. Steve Dickerson, a Nashville Republican, voted against it.

“We already know there are too many people in prison too long,” Harris said, noting the state’s prisons are full of people who’ve committed minor marijuana offenses.

He contended ex-offenders struggle to find jobs because of their time in prison and will be likely to be imprisoned again within three years of their release because of the strict nature of the state’s marijuana law.

“It puts the most important aspect of Tennesseans’ lives in jeopardy: their freedom,” Harris said.

Kyle argued for “local control,” saying the Senate should be trying to return authority to the level of government closest to the people.

“Each of us represent different citizens across this state. I’m from Memphis, for those of you from East Tennessee, our citizens roll differently, I get that,” Kyle said. “I think the local government, who really understand, I think we need to give them more power instead of less.”

The message to local governments is, “we’re going to tell you what to do,” Kyle said.

The state House overwhelmingly passed the measure last week, largely along party lines. It would go to the governor next for his signature.

The governor is deferring to the will of the Legislature on the measure, but will review the bill in its final form before taking action, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland believes local issues should be handled by the local government, but said the city of Memphis will follow state law, according to spokeswoman Ursula Madden.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry said the legislation’s impact would be “minimal” considering the small number of civil citations written in the last six months.

“There is growing bipartisan consensus that we must revisit and reduce criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of cannabis,” Barry said. “So while I understand the General Assembly’s desire for uniformity in our drug laws, I hope this will be an opportunity to have a larger discussion about cannabis laws statewide.”

State Rep. William Lamberth, a Sumner County Republican sponsoring the House version of the bill, said last week only 37 civil citations have been written in Nashville compared to 888 arrests on misdemeanor possession charges.

Separately, Memphis Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson is sponsoring legislation to make possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a misdemeanor rather than a felony, increasing the threshold from a half-ounce.

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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