Tennessee Bill Looks to Remove Lighter Marijuana Possession Penalties

By McCarton Ackerman 02/09/17

One lawmaker wants to scale back decriminalization efforts in Memphis and Nashville so they re-align with the state's harsher drug penalties.

man with a joint.

A Republican lawmaker in Tennessee has introduced a bill that seeks to backtrack on lighter punishments for marijuana that were recently approved in Nashville and Memphis.

Last September, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry signed an ordinance that gave city police the option to impose a $50 fine or 10 hours of community service for anyone possessing a half-ounce or less of marijuana. Police still had the option of charging the individual with a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by a $2,500 fine and up to one year in jail. 

Memphis approved a similar policy, but eventually put theirs on hold. But, according to The Tennessean, this wasn't enough for House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman William Lamberth, who introduced a bill on January 30 which seeks to repeal any local laws that don’t align with the penalties outlined in the state’s statute for narcotic drugs. His proposal would also forbid local governments from making their own penalties for drug possession charges.

“We’ve never had cities that have just blatantly disregarded state criminal laws and just started making up their own criminal laws on their own,” said Lamberth. “If that were to continue, you would have a hodgepodge of criminal laws throughout our state that no attorney, judge or individual would ever be able to understand or explain as to what penalties you may face where and when.

“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,” he added. “You just can’t have cities creating their own criminal code, willy-nilly.”

In response, Democrats Rep. Harold Love and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both of Nashville, announced that they would introduce their own bill to reduce marijuana possession in Tennessee from a Class A to a Class C misdemeanor, which would result in a fine of $50 or less. Rep. Love said that “we should apply a reasonable standard statewide so that possession of very small amounts of marijuana doesn’t increase our jail population or place a financial strain on you.”

Advocates of lighter marijuana possession punishments in Memphis and Nashville, including the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, noted that less harsh punishments would keep minorities from picking up a criminal record. They noted that a criminal record would hurt one's chances of finding employment, and added that minorities are disproportionately affected by simple marijuana possession arrests.

Mayor Barry’s press secretary declined to comment on the bill.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.