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VOL. 41 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 24, 2017

Bill opposing Nashville, Memphis marijuana laws passes

By Sam Stockard

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State senators are intent on striking down Memphis and Nashville marijuana laws giving police discretion to hand out citations for possessing small amounts of pot.

Despite opposition from Shelby County and Davidson County legislators, the Senate voted 26-5 Monday to clarify that state law overrides local government regulations involving drugs and similar substances.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jack Johnson, a Franklin Republican who has opposed other measures adopted by the Metro Nashville City Council, pointed out the state attorney general opined that municipalities cannot write ordinances that conflict with state and federal law or constitutions.

“Let me tell you what a slippery slope is: When we start allowing municipalities to decide what state laws they want to enforce and which state laws they do not want to enforce. That is not a power granted to municipalities or any local government under the state Constitution or Tennessee statute,” Johnson said.

Though Memphis passed an ordinance in 2016 enabling officers to issue a $50 citation for possession of less than an ounce of weed versus making an arrest on a Class B misdemeanor, the city put a hold on the new ordinance after the state attorney general issued an opinion saying the new rules are unconstitutional.

The bill easily passed the Republican-controlled body even though Memphis Democrats, Sen. Lee Harris and Sen. Sara Kyle, gave impassioned pleas against it.

“We already know there are too many people in prison too long,” Harris said, noting the state’s prisons are full of people who’ve committed minor marijuana offenses.

He contended ex-offenders struggle to find jobs because of their time in prison and will be likely to be imprisoned again within three years of their release because of the strict nature of the state’s marijuana law.

“It puts the most important aspect of Tennesseans’ lives in jeopardy: their freedom,” Harris said.

Kyle argued for “local control,” saying the Senate should be trying to return authority to the level of government closest to the people.

“Each of us represent different citizens across this state. I’m from Memphis, for those of you from East Tennessee, our citizens roll differently, I get that,” Kyle said. “I think the local government, who really understand, I think we need to give them more power instead of less.”

The message to local governments is, “we’re going to tell you what to do,” Kyle said.

The state House overwhelmingly passed the measure last week, largely along party lines.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.