Nashville is set to become the first city in Tennessee to eliminate the criminal penalties associated with small time marijuana possession.
On Tuesday, the Metro City Council voted 35-to-3 to give final approval on a decriminalization ordinance that will allow local police to simply fine marijuana offenders instead of dragging them to jail. The measure was designed to give the Metro Nashville Police Department the freedom to slap the hands of those caught in possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana by giving them the option of paying a $50 fine or serving ten hours of community service.
In a statement issued following the council’s vote, Mayor Megan Barry said that she would sign the ordinance into law.
"This legislation is a positive step forward in addressing the overly punitive treatment of marijuana possession in our state that disproportionately impacts low-income and minority residents," Barry said.
Earlier this week, supporters of the citywide decriminalization ordinance were concerned the Metro Council might abandon the measure due to a Tennessee lawmaker’s threat to defund the city. State Representative William Lamberth, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, said that he would introduce legislation in the next session that would do away with around $120 million in highway funding if Nashville’s government moved forward with what he called a “reckless and unjust” policy on marijuana.
However, Mayor Barry responded to the warning by saying that Nashville would not operate “based on what the state may or may not do.”
While the Metro Council’s move to decriminalize marijuana possession is being considered a major victory by its supporters, the ordinance still carries the risk for petty pot offenders to be charged with a crime. Nashville police officers will have the authority to use their own discretion when it comes to deciding which offenders pay a fine and who will face criminal charges.
“It is important to stress that this ordinance is not a license to sell, possess or use marijuana in Nashville," Mayor Barry said. "When this ordinance becomes law, police officers will still have the ability to make arrests or issue state criminal citations for marijuana possession as circumstances warrant, which is a Class A misdemeanor under state law.”
Tennessee law dictates that people caught with up to a half-ounce of marijuana should serve up to a year in jail and pay fines reaching $2,500.
Nevertheless, supporters are calling the passing of the Nashville decriminalization ordinance a “set back for the prohibitionists.”
“Even with the threat of withholding millions from the roads of Nashville looming, the politicians here were listening to their constituents and the vote was overwhelming,” Attorney Doak Patton, who serves as the president of Tennessee NORML, told MERRY JANE. “This is finally a win and a voice for the voters.”
The Memphis City Council will take up the first of three votes on a similar decriminalization ordinance next week. However, the proposal is not expected to gain much momentum because of criticisms by Memphis Police Director Mike Rallings and Mayor Jim Strickland.