New Nashville Marijuana ‘Decriminalization Bill’ Leaves Room for Police Bias

Article by Gabby Bess, Broadly

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On Tuesday, Nashville became the first city in Tennessee to pass anordinance that would allow people who are found with small amounts of cannabis to avoid jail time and a criminal record. Mayor Megan Barry is expected to sign the legislation into law and has called the bill is a victory for criminal justice. “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,” she said in a statement.

Indeed, this is a step in the right direction: According to a 2009 report, Tennessee ranked 11th in the nation for marijuana arrests per capita in 2007, and state law currently mandates up to one year in prison and a $2,500 fine for carrying up to one ounce of marijuana, which is considered a misdemeanor. However, the new ordinance doesn’t exactly decriminalize weed for all Nashville residents—the measure only gives cops the option to assign lesser punishments to marijuana possession; it doesn’t mandate them.

Councilman Dave Rosenberg, who sponsored the bill, considers it a “local parallel ordinance” to state law. “It doesn’t supersede state law,” he told Broadly. “This is giving police officers an additional tool for enforcement. Officers have the discretion to either issue a civil citation or enforce the state statue when they’re enforcing the law.”

Said differently, the law has the potential to arbitrarily criminalize some people for marijuana possession and not others. In its original form, the bill stated that violators “shall” be issued a citation and fined $50 if caught with up to half an ounce of weed, but the Metro Nashville Police Department strongly objected to it. In its final form, the language was changed to give police the ability to issue a fine or make an arrest, depending on the circumstance. Once that change was made, Police Chief Steve Anderson announced in a memo to council members, “Consequently, I feel comfortable in moving my position to neutral, neither opposing or advocating passage.” Anderson did not return Broadly’s request for comment in time for publication.

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