A proposal to let people caught with small amounts of marijuana in Nashville have the chance of avoiding a criminal record took a major step forward Tuesday.
The Metro Council, by a voice vote, advanced legislation on a second of three readings that would add Nashville to the growing list of cities and states that have passed measures aimed at decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot.
The ordinance, which marks the first ever proposal on marijuana decriminalization taken up by Nashville's legislative body, would not legalize the possession of small amounts marijuana. Instead, it would give police the option of reducing the penalty for people who knowingly possess a half-ounce of marijuana or less in Nashville to a $50 civil penalty or 10 hours of community service.
Under Tennessee law, people caught with one-half ounce of marijuana or less face a misdemeanor charge that is punishable up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
“There’s a large criminal justice reform conversation going on now and there’s a large national conversation that is changing around this particular issue,” said Green Hills-area Councilman Russ Pulley, a co-sponsor of the legislation, noting that multiple states have already legalized marijuana and several more will have referendum votes on the matter in November.
“This gets us involved in that conversation,” he said.
The bill will now be considered for final approval on Sept. 20.
The bill’s sponsors, which also include Councilman Dave Rosenberg of Bellevue, have argued it does not violate state law and would simply create a “local parallel ordinance” to the state law, likening the decriminalization measure to Metro’s law for littering, which he said has penalties not as severe as what is outlined in state law.
Among the handful of council members who voted against the bill Tuesday was Councilman Doug Pardue of Goodlettsville, a former Nashville police officer of 30 years, who said a half ounce of marijuana is “quite a bit of dope” that can impair an individual’s ability to drive.
“I also don’t think it sends a good message to our kids or anybody else’s,” Pardue said, later adding: "Some of the stats that we hear from the (proponents’) side just aren't true.”
Mayor Megan Barry has not offered a formal stance on the ordinance but has said she’s “generally supportive” of efforts to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.
Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall, Davidson County Public Defender Dawn Deaner, the Tennessee state legislature’s black caucus and the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee each backed the legislation over the past week. They’ve argued the ordinance would help reduce incarceration rates of Nashvillians, particularly young people of color, who are arrested at disproportionately higher rates. Proponents argue offenders are not best served by carrying out jail time.
Deaner told a council committee on Tuesday there are “lifelong consequences” when someone is convicted for simple possession of marijuana. She said poor people are especially affected, pointing out that it can prevent them from being eligible for public housing or federal student loans for at least one year.
“There are immediate consequences that are very punitive, then there are shorter-term consequences that are punitive,” Deaner said. “And those who are most impacted by that are poor people.”
The Metro Nashville Police Department had originally opposed the legislation over language in the ordinance that says violators "shall" be issued a citation for a civil penalty of $50. Police have said the use of the word would remove discretion from police officers.
But the police department changed its position over the weekend to being neutral on the bill after the council’s co-sponsors agreed to replace the word “shall” with the word “may” via amendment, giving more flexibility for officers and allowing criminal charges to still be an option.
Despite the department’s stated position of neutrality, Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson in a letter to the council last week outlined what he called “information from a law enforcement perspective” that should be weighed against any positive aspects of the bill.
Anderson said among top concerns is the weight or quantity of marijuana as defined in the bill. He said one-half ounce of marijuana is a greater quantity than some people realize — enough, he said, to create 50 “joint” marijuana cigarettes.
He said there needs to be a better “public understanding” of what one-half ounce of marijuana constitutes.
“Those persons who do have experience with marijuana will understand that one-half ounce can produce a significant number of ‘joints’ or marijuana-type cigarettes,” Anderson wrote. “This amount of the drug has the ability to produce a high level of intoxication multiple times to many persons.”
In a later correspondence to the council, Anderson provided further caution, saying that a “vast majority” of illegal firearm seizures in Nashville were discovered in conjunction with the investigation of other criminal activity, including possession of marijuana.
“Over the past few years a common theme has presented itself — the riding about in a vehicle smoking marijuana while armed,” Anderson wrote. “In many cases the person (s) involved are felons precluded by law from possessing a firearm.”
Anderson later pointed to repercussions of marijuana use when it comes to the ability to operate guns and vehicles.
“We are all aware of the dangerous consequences when persons intoxicated with alcohol operate a motor vehicle,” Anderson said. “We should be equally mindful of the dangerous consequences when persons operating a motor vehicle are intoxicated with marijuana.
“Likewise, we are all aware of the dangerous consequences when persons intoxicated with alcohol are in possession of firearms. We should be equally mindful of the dangerous consequences when persons possessing firearms are intoxicated with marijuana.”
If the bill is approved by the council on a final of three votes in two weeks, intervention may came from the Republican-led state legislature after it reconvenes in January.
Several Republican lawmakers have expressed opposition to the Nashville bill as well as a similar ordinance proposed in Memphis. Republican Gov. Bill Hallam has said he is “not a fan” of the bill, noting struggles with substance abuse in society.