Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam Just Re-Criminalized Marijuana Possession in Memphis and Nashville
Decriminalization supporters in the two cities wanted to reduce marijuana arrests but detractors say the ordinances gave local police departments too much discretion.
Published on April 14, 2017

Say goodbye to citations and hello to handcuffs, Tennessee. According to the Tennessean, Governor Bill Haslam signed a law on Wednesday that effectively nullifies city-sanctioned cannabis decriminalization in the state’s two largest cities.

It was big news in Texas yesterday when local legislators in Dallas passed a decriminalization law aimed at keeping low-level possession offenders out of jail. In states without medical or recreational weed laws on the books, decriminalization goes a long way in protecting cannabis users from the long reach of the War on Drugs. Houston, Philadelphia, and a host of American cities have similar legislation - but after seven months of quasi-decriminalization, residents of Memphis and Nashville will once again be subject to required arrest and jail time for simple possession.

But while cities like Houston fully decriminalized small-scale possession, Nashville, and then Memphis, both passed ordinances that gave local police officers the ability to, at their discretion, charge low-level possession suspects with either a Class A misdemeanor that carries 1 year in jail, or a $50 citation that comes with 10 hours of community service. With rules as open-ended as that, even some cannabis supporters got behind Gov. Haslam’s move to repeal.

“You can’t allow an officer at their whim to treat two different individuals who have potentially committed the same crime in drastically different ways depending on what that officer feels like at a given time,” Republican legislator William Lamberth, who sponsored the repeal, said. “You just can’t have cities creating their own criminal code, willy-nilly.”

Lamberth has a point, backed up by the fact that in the seven months with quasi-decriminalization, Nashville cops issued only 39 citations, while arresting 1,082. Still, some citations are better than no citations if it means less jail time served by non-violent drug offenders - and Tennessee state regulators proposed no fix to the city ordinances, opting for a full repeal instead. 

Legislators have pushed for medical marijuana legalization, but that fight is far from won - until local lawmakers come to their senses about cannabis, residents in all corners of the Volunteer State will face unnecessarily harsh penalties for even carrying a joint.

Zach Harris
Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.
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