TN: ACLU Throws Support Behind Nashville Marijuana Decriminalization Proposal


The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee on Thursday became the latest to throw its support behind a proposal that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in Nashville.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, in a letter Thursday to Metro Council members, urged support for Nashville’s pending decriminalization ordinance, which is up for a key second of three votes in the Metro Council on Tuesday.

She argued the measure would help cut down incarceration rates of “low-level” offenders who have pushed Tennessee’s prison population to grown more than twice as fast as the state’s population over the past 15 years.

“Dangerous offenders belong behind bars,” Weinberg’s letter reads. “But many of the individuals in our jails and prisons are not there for violent crimes. By imposing a civil penalty – rather than a criminal one – for possession of half an ounce of marijuana or less, the ordinance would reduce the costly incarceration rate for this low-level, nonviolent violation as well as the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction.”

The ACLU’s backing follows pledged support for the ordinance earlier this week from the Tennessee legislature’s black caucus and Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall. Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam as well as some Republican state lawmakers have raised concerns about both the Nashville ordinance as well as a similar bill proposed in Memphis.

The Metro Nashville Police Department has opposed Nashville’s bill in its current form, but the bill’s council sponsors plan to offer an amendment next week they hope will alleviate the department’s concerns.

According to Tennessee’s ACLU branch, which is also supportive of the pending Memphis bill, Tennessee spent nearly $43 million enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010.

In her Thursday letter, Weinberg said the ordinance would save taxpayer money and also help mitigate racial disparities. She said black people are arrested for marijuana possession at disproportionately higher rates than white people.

“For far too long, thousands of Nashvillians – disproportionately black Nashvillians – have been arrested for possession of very small amounts of marijuana, leading to disastrous consequences for their lives, including the loss of jobs, education and housing opportunities,” Weinberg wrote.

Nashville’s decriminalization proposal would lessen the penalty for people who knowingly possess a half-ounce of marijuana or less to a $50 civil penalty or 10 hours of community service. As a result, violators would avoid a criminal record.

Under Tennessee law, people caught with one-half ounce of marijuana or less face a misdemeanor charge that is punishable of up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

The bill’s sponsors, led by Councilman Dave Rosenberg of Bellevue, have argued the proposal would simply create a “local parallel ordinance” to the state law and have likened the decriminalization measure to Metro’s law for littering, which has penalties not as severe as what is outlined in state law.

Nashville’s police department has expressed opposition to the bill in its current form because of language in the ordinance that says violators “shall” be issued a citation for a civil penalty of $50. The department says the use of that word removes discretion from police officers.

Rosenberg and others plan to introduce an amendment next week that would that would insert the word “may” instead of “shall” in an attempt to address the police department’s concerns.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: ACLU Throws Support Behind Nashville Marijuana Decriminalization Proposal
Author: Joey Garrison
Contact: 615-259-8095
Photo Credit: David McNew
Website: The Tennessean