Bill Haslam Signs Repeal of New Nashville, Memphis Marijuana Laws
Nashville and Memphis received great fanfare last fall from criminal justice advocates for passing local ordinances that gave police the power to reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
But now it's over after just seven months.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday signed into law Republican-backed legislation to repeal separate Nashville and Memphis laws that had allowed partial marijuana decriminalization in those communities, officially putting an end to the short-lived policies.
The nullification effort, sponsored by House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, and Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, breezed through the House and Senate last month, with only Democrats, far outnumbered, mounting any opposition.
Jennifer Donnals, Haslam's press secretary, said the governor deferred to the will of the legislature when asked why he supported the effort with his signature. She provided the same comment when asked for his opinion on the bill.
Nashville's ordinance, approved by the Metro Council in September and endorsed by Mayor Megan Barry, gave police the discretion to reduce the penalty for people who are found in possession of a half-ounce of marijuana or less to a $50 Metro civil citation or 10 hours of community service. Police retained the option of charging a Class A state misdemeanor that is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
A few weeks later, the Memphis City Council passed a similar ordinance modeled off Nashville's.
The Metro Nashville Police Department's enforcement of the ordinance has halted following the repeal. In a statement on Haslam's signature, Barry spokesman Sean Braisted said Nashville police will no longer issue civil penalties for marijuana possession.
In Nashville, the lighter civil penalty had only been sparingly utilized. Nashville police issued just 39 Metro citations since the passage of the ordinance on Sept. 20, according to police spokesman Don Aaron, compared to 1,082 state-citation arrests.
Haslam's signature had been expected. The state bill, which was aimed directly at Nashville and Memphis, was worded as a repeal of any local law that is inconsistent with penalties outlined in the state’s statute for drug control and narcotic drugs. It also prevents local governments from creating their own sanctions for drug possession moving forward.
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Advocates of Nashville and Memphis' measures — which included The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators — argued the lighter marijuana penalty would allow violators to avoid a criminal record, which can hurt people’s chances to find employment, housing and schooling. They also argued poor and minority residents are disproportionately affected by simple marijuana possession arrests.
But others said the policy gave too much discretion to police in deciding penalties and also violated the Tennessee Constitution.
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued a legal opinion in November that said the local marijuana ordinances were not enforceable. He said the local policies conflicted with a state law addressing drug control and another on the powers of district attorneys.
“A municipal ordinance that attempts to regulate a field that is regulated by state statute cannot stand if it is contradictory to state law,” Slatery wrote in his opinion.
Memphis suspended its ordinance after the DA's opinion came out.
But Nashville pressed on. Metro Director of Law Jon Cooper said in November that he disagreed with Slatery, arguing the ordinance was not preempted by state law. Supporters of the ordinance have argued it works within the confines of state law, likening the measure to Metro’s laws for litter and seat belts, both of which have penalties that are not as severe as those outlined in state law.
Leading the resistance in the state legislature was Sumner County's Lamberth, who said he applauded Nashville's and Memphis' interest in criminal justice reform but said both cities had violated state law.
“You can’t allow an officer at their whim to treat two different individuals who have potentially committed the same crime in drastically different ways depending on what that officer feels like at a given time,” Lamberth said after filing his bill earlier this session. “You just can’t have cities creating their own criminal code, willy-nilly.”
Reach Joey Garrison at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-259-8236 and on Twitter @joeygarrison.