TN: Marijuana Decriminalization Faces Important Council Meeting

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After advancing on a procedural vote earlier this month, a bill that would reduce the penalty for possessing or exchanging small amounts of marijuana faces a crucial vote at the Metro Council next week.

The 32-4 vote on first reading was important, allowing the bill to advance, but not necessarily indicative of the kind of support the proposal will have within the 40-member body. Most bills breeze through first reading without even being put to a recorded vote, sending them on to the council committee process, and several members who voted for this bill on procedural grounds expressed uncertainty about whether they will ultimately support it.

Still, the proposal looks to have a decent chance of passage.

During last year’s mayoral campaign, Megan Barry and the majority of her fellow candidates expressed support for decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, and her administration has since reiterated support for the idea in general. Walter Searcy, an attorney who is among the leaders of Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) – a group that has been increasingly influential on issues related to criminal justice and housing – tells the Scene that the organization doesn’t have an official position on the council bill yet, but signals support for the idea. He notes that, particularly for Nashville youth, arrests for small amounts of marijuana can be the gateway into the labyrinth of the criminal justice system.

“As a general proposition, we’re for decriminalizing anything that doesn’t need to be a criminal process, and marijuana would certainly be included in that,” he says.

The bill, sponsored by Bellevue Councilman Dave Rosenberg, would reduce the penalty for possessing or exchanging a half-ounce of marijuana to a $50 fine or up to 10 hours of community service. Currently, state law considers that a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to a year in jail or a $2,500 fine.

Metro Nashville Police Department spokesperson Don Aaron tells the Scene it’s “difficult to mine down into specifically misdemeanor marijuana offenses without looking at each narrative,” but says that looking at arrests that only include a violation of that state code from Jan. 1, 2015, to Aug. 10, 2016, they break down like this:

  • 12,825 arrests with at least one simple possession violation
  • 1,230 (9.6 percent) also included a separate felony charge
  • 11,595 (90.4 percent) did not include a separate felony charge.

For perspective, that’s almost 20 misdemeanors a day in Nashville without an accompanying felony charge.

The police department is opposed to the bill as introduced, but Aaron says that’s primarily due to the wording of the proposed ordinance – it says an offender “shall be issued a citation” as opposed to “may be issued,” which would appear to take discretion away from the officer. But Rosenberg says he’s open to working with the department and tells the Scene he’s sent police officials amendatory language to that effect for their review.

Rosenberg says his sponsorship of the bill was the result of a confluence of fiscal, philosophical and public-safety issues. He points to municipalities in Florida – including Tampa and Miami-Dade County – that have passed similar ordinances and seen them succeed.

In interactions with the public about the proposal – he’s done two call-in shows on NewsChannel 5 about the bill – Rosenberg says most of the opposition he’s heard was “largely, I thought, based around misconceptions that it does more than it does.” His bill does not legalize marijuana, and it can’t overrule state law – so there is still the chance that an offender could face the harsher charge. But he’s also working on amended language that would stipulate that if an individual is charged under the state code, they will not also face the local fine.

Rosenberg has four co-sponsors on the bill: Council members Russ Pulley – he’s a former law enforcement officer – Freddie O’Connell, Sharon Hurt and Anthony Davis.

At the council meeting earlier this month, the bill received support from members like Councilman Fabian Bedne, who said members should consider the effect that the status quo has on marginalized communities.

“This is something that targets minorities a lot, small amounts of drugs, and it really hurts their ability to break away from a cycle of poverty,” Bedne said.

The ordinance would create yet another issue that separates Nashville from the state around it, but even at the state legislature, there has been support for treating minor drug offenses less harshly. In May, Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bipartisan bill eliminating part of the law that made a third conviction for simple possession a felony, eliminating the escalation of minor offenses into big charges and meaning that a person arrested for possessing half an ounce of marijuana would be charged with a misdemeanor no matter how many previous arrests they had for that offense.

Marijuana has been legalized in three states plus Washington, D.C., and decriminalized in 16 more.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: Marijuana Decriminalization Faces Important Council Meeting
Author: Staff
Contact: 615-301-9246
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Website: Nashville Scene