Nashville is set to become the first city in Tennessee to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis, but the law does give police officers discretion on whether to charge an individual with a misdemeanor.
The city of Nashville decriminalized small amounts of marijuana last month, making it the first Tennessee city to do so. Under the new law, being found with less than a half ounce of marijuana is susceptible to a $50 fine or up to 10 hours of community service. Previously, small amounts of possession called for a Class A misdemeanor charge with up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. The Metro Council approved the bill, sponsored by councilman Dave Rosenberg, with a 35-3 vote.
“It is a civil penalty. It doesn’t take away anything that they have right now, but it also gives the opportunity for people who make mistakes to go through life without the criminal record hanging over their head,” councilman Russ Pulley told Nashville ABC-affiliate News 2. “It gives them the opportunity to deal with a mistake by a young person or someone else carrying a small amount of marijuana differently than they do now.”
The new law does, however, leave the penalty up to the discretion of the involved police officer. The officer has the option to either give someone found in possession the lesser penalty or a misdemeanor charge.
Critics of the measure, including State Rep. William Lamberth (R-Cottontown), argue that the law creates “two standards of justice.” One person caught in possession of small amounts of cannabis could face nearly a year in jail, while another could be ordered just a $50 fine.
According to The Tennessean, the bill was originally drafted in a way to make a civil penalty automatic, rather than giving police officers discretion. Following concerns from the Metro Nashville Police Department, however, the council approved the amended version.
“All this bill does is give police the option of not treating someone with a little pot like a hardened criminal,” Rosenberg said. “Because when you start treating good members of our society like criminals they begin acting like criminals.”
Some judges in Nashville have pointed out that civil penalties of small amounts of marijuana are harder to have expunged from an individual’s records than a misdemeanor. Civil records are only expunged when a matter is not prosecuted or is dismissed.
Still, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee voiced support of the new law.
“For far too long, thousands of Nashvillians —including a disproportionate number of black residents — have been arrested for possession of tiny amounts of marijuana. These arrests have led to disastrous consequences for their lives, including the loss of job, education and housing opportunities,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee said in a statement. “This ordinance could significantly reduce the costly incarceration rate for this low-level violation, freeing law enforcement to focus on addressing violent crime and keeping our community safer.”
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry also supports the bill, citing that the previous strict penalties enforcing prohibition were biased and ineffective.
“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,” Barry said.