It is no longer a crime to carry small amounts of marijuana in one of America’s most conservative cities.
Officials in Nashville voted in September to decriminalize simple cannabis possession. Now, instead of facing misdemeanor criminal charges, jail time, and a permanent record, potheads could receive $50 tickets.
Under the new policy, Nashville police officers will have discretion to write civil citations instead of arresting suspects and charging them with crimes.
Police will have discretion to write civil citation
The rules will apply to possession of up to a half an ounce of pot. And judges would be able to suspend the $50 fine if marijuana users agree to 10 hours of community service.
Tennessee law currently treats simple possession as a misdemeanor. The maximum penalty for half an ounce or less is $2,500 and up to a year in jail.
“We’re not decriminalizing. We’re not removing state law that makes it a criminal offense,” said Council Member Dave Rosenberg. It’s just another option and what the legislature decides to do in the future and we’ll see.”
Strong majority support
Council members passed the decriminalization measure by a vote of 35-3 at a hearing Sept. 20. The three members who voted against the ordinance said they had problems with the specifics, even if they favor reduced penalties for cannabis users.
Council Member Steve Glover said he opposed the bill because it sends mixed meessages to police, judges, and stoners.
“We’re sending conflicting info to the city,” said Glover.
There are other problems with this kind of reform. Because police still retain discretion to arrest users, they will likely continue to charge people of color at much higher rates than white stoners.
Reducing racial disparities in arrest rates
Mayor Megan Barry initially took a neutral position on the ordinance, but she praised it after it passed.
“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 in a news release. “It is important to stress that this ordinance is not a license to sell, possess, or use marijuana in Nashville. 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.”
Civil liberties advocates also said they were pleased by the council’s decision. The local branch of the ACLU said that though the law is imperfect, it could cut down on racial discrimination in Nashville’s cannabis enforcement.
“ACLU-TN applauds the members of Metro Council who voted for a smarter approach to marijuana possession,” the group said in a statement. “For far too long, thousands of Nashvillians — including a disproportionate number of Black residents — have been arrested for possession of tiny amounts of marijuana. These arrests have led to disastrous consequences for their lives, including the loss of job, education and housing opportunities. This ordinance could significantly reduce the costly incarceration rate for this low-level violation, freeing law enforcement to focus on addressing violent crime and keeping our community safer.”
What do you think: Will decriminalization in Nashville speed up marijuana reform in the Deep South? Leave a comment below.