Nashville has been called the “Buckle of the Bible Belt” and “The Protestant Vatican.” After Tuesday, it may be the Deep South’s Cannabis City. And Memphis — the so-called “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll” — may join the marijuana bandwagon next month.
Tennessee’s two largest cities are on the verge of decriminalizing marijuana. If citizens are caught carrying a half-ounce or less of marijuana, law enforcement officials have the discretion of giving them a $50 civil citation or community service.
Tuesday night, the Nashville Metropolitan Council will vote on the ordinance; the Memphis City Council will decide on Oct. 4.
Current Tennessee law states that any person with a half-ounce of marijuana or less could face up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Just to add some context: A half-ounce of marijuana is about 20 joints. A year in jail for 20 joints? Yep, that is the current state law.
Proponents of both ordinances say that decriminalization of marijuana will allow police officers to focus on violent crime and will foster more trust for law enforcement.
The Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has put its support behind these proposed ordinances, stating that people of color are disproportionately arrested on possession charges.
The Center on Juvenile Justice and Criminal Reform conducted a study in 2014 and found that blacks were more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than all other races and ethnicities.
In a letter in support of the Memphis proposal, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) wrote that it “would keep young people in the 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.”
Not everyone is onboard. “We are trying to jump on a bandwagon and I’m not sure what music is being played,” said Police Director Mike Rallings last month.
And according to The Tennessean, a Republican lawmaker is threatening the two cities with statewide sanctions.
State Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, said he is “strongly considering” filing a state bill next session that would penalize either city if it approves pending ordinances that seek to give people caught with small amounts of marijuana a chance to avoid a criminal record.
Lamberth, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, said his potential bill would seek to halt state highway funds from cities that do not enforce criminal penalties outlined in state law. Funding would continue again if a violating city overturns their policy. This past year, the state set aside $129.1 million in highway funds for Shelby County and $119.5 million for Davidson County.