MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Political leaders in Tennessee's two largest cities are taking steps toward marijuana decriminalization with ordinances that would allow police to reduce the penalty for people who possess small amounts of it.
Nashville's Metropolitan Council is set to take a final vote on its ordinance on Tuesday, while the Memphis City Council is scheduled to make its decision Oct. 4. Both cities have similar proposals on the table: Police who encounter people in possession of a half-ounce or less of marijuana have the discretion of giving them a civil citation for a $50 fine or community service.
Such a penalty is in stark contrast to Tennessee law, which calls for people caught with a half-ounce of marijuana or less to face a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Nashville and Memphis are trying to join more than two dozen other U.S. cities that have taken steps to decriminalize marijuana, including Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans and Miami, said John Marek, executive director of the Memphis chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Marek said he hopes state legislators are paying attention to the city ordinances.
"We do hope that it sends a signal ... that it's time to consider decriminalization and medical marijuana on the state level," Marek said.
Supporters of the ordinances say the new approach to simple marijuana-possession offenses will allow officers to spend more time on the streets fighting serious crimes, rather than locking people up for minor ones. Many say they also will help eliminate racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests.
A September 2014 report by the Center on Juvenile Justice and Criminal Reform, citing statistics in five states that implemented marijuana reforms, concluded that blacks were more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than all other races and ethnicities.
"These low-level drug offenses hit harder on poor and minority communities," the Black Caucus of State Legislators noted in a letter to the Memphis City Council supporting the ordinance.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, the Memphis Democrat who has pushed marijuana decriminalization and other types of criminal justice reform in the U.S. House, agreed. In a letter supporting the Memphis ordinance, he wrote that it "would keep young people in the city, disproportionately African-Americans, from being subject to convictions that can affect their future or current employment and create a barrier to scholarship and housing opportunities."
Memphis City Council member Berlin Boyd, who is black, sponsored the ordinance after watching the positive response it received in Nashville. The Nashville ordinance was gradual, coming a year after a failed attempt to hold a public referendum on the issue.
Nashville Metro Councilman Russ Pulley, a former police officer and FBI agent, says the goal is not to take it easy on offenders who are arrested for more serious crimes or who have a violent criminal past.
"In no way, shape or form would this inhibit the police to conduct those types of investigations ... and take guns off the street," said Pulley, who is co-sponsoring the Nashville ordinance.
Neither city has seen a groundswell of opponents, but there has been some pushback. Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters in late August that he is "not a fan" of the ordinances.
"While I do think we've had some people who have spent more time in jail than they need to for that, I'm not in favor of decriminalizing that," he said.
Some state lawmakers have questioned whether the ordinances and their reduced punishments conflict with the stiffer penalties required by state law. Republican State Rep. William Lamberth, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, has said he is considering filing a bill in the next legislative session that would withhold state highway funds from cities that fail to enforce the state marijuana law.
Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said she wonders if city officials are posing a solution for a problem that doesn't really exist. Last year in Memphis, she said, only 333 of the approximately 200,000 cases her office reviewed involved simple possession as the only charge.
In Nashville, Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson was initially opposed to the language in the proposal, which said offenders "shall" be issued a citation for a $50 civil penalty. He says he is now neutral on the issue after the language was changed from "shall" to "may," allowing officers to use their discretion.
State Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a member of the Black Caucus of State Legislators, said she just hopes officers use that discretion fairly with both whites and blacks.
"Any time you give discretion to anyone, sometimes their personal interactions or their biases might come into the picture," Akbari said.