An ordinance to decriminalize marijuana possession will get a full vote by the Memphis City Council in two weeks and it will come with a favorable recommendation from the council’s Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee.
The ordinance, brought to the council by council member Berlin Boyd, would drop criminal charges of those caught with a half ounce or less of marijuana and, instead, impose on them a $50 fine and, perhaps, some community service.
Currently, those convicted of possessing less than a half ounce of pot in Tennessee face a misdemeanor charge and the possibility of up to a year in jail and a maximum $250 fine. Anything above a half-ounce is a felony. Council members on the committee passed the ordinance out of committee Tuesday morning after passionate speeches given on both sides of the issue.
In introducing his proposal, Boyd said he is not trying to legalize marijuana in Memphis, he’s trying to “remove the penalties that put black eyes on people who makes mistakes.” He said lowering the penalty would ease overcrowding in jails here and unclog court dockets.
“Remember, we are the lawmakers,” he told his fellow council members. “Police are the law enforcement agency.
“We make the laws. We were elected to legislate…I want to make a difference in the lives of poor African Americans in this city. This is something we can [use to] change the dynamics of overcrowding in jails and bottle-necking the courts with passed and minimal cases.”
Memphis Police Department director Michael Rallings re-asserted his now oft-stated opinion the proposed law.
“The police director will never promote dope smoking,” he said to council members Tuesday. “It negatively affects a person’s ability to get a job and to maintain a job.”
Rallings said he wished council members would wait and see how a similar proposal would fare in Nashville. The Metropolitan Council there passed its version of the law out of committee and then on the first of three reading readings by the full council.
Rallings said more time is needed to discuss the matter and to fully realize the scope of its consequences. For example, he said state charges of possession would supersede city laws. Also, he wondered how many $50 fines the city would impose on a person.
Rawlings said the law would be the first step toward full legalization “because it has been in other jurisdictions.” And “the jury is still out” on the consequences of full marijuana legalization in Colorado, he said.
Officials with the Memphis Division of Fire Services told council members that an average of 13 calls a month for ambulances here were direct results of smoking marijuana. The proposal would increase the figure, they said, putting a drag on essential resources.
Council member Janis Fullilove blasted the proposal mainly because she said Rallings had not been contacted about it before Boyd announced his intentions to file it. Instead of the ordinance, Fullilove had advice for marijuana smokers.
“Stop driving around and having weed in your car. Then, you won’t get arrested,” Fullilove said. “Responsible weed smokers, smoke their joints at home.”
She said she supports law enforcement and as Rallings opposes the proposal, she said she will, too.
Council member Joe Brown said he wouldn’t support the move either, saying “drugs [are] a demon.”
“Anybody who promotes drugs is being disobedient to God’s law and drugs [are] definitely a demon,” Brown said. “It destroys the very fabric of children. Everybody it destroys. Men, it destroys you.”
Brown said drugs are non-discriminatory and they “don’t segregate [themselves] on different communities or races. He said marijuana is a gateway drug, leading users to crack cocaine and then to heroin, which has gained traction “not just in black communities but with whites, too, and with Mexican Americans and in Asian communities.”
He said relaxing marijuana rules would allow dealers to sell drugs for their cars and, then, get closer to schools and wondered how many children that would affect.
Council member Martavius Jones asked police and fire officials there how many accidents and arrests were caused by those drinking alcohol. Also, he asked them to look at what he called “disparate” numbers of black offenders who are jailed over marijuana offenses in Memphis then white offenders.
“Do we seriously think that black people smoke more marijuana then white people?” Jones asked rhetorically. “No!”
Committee chairman Worth Morgan attempted to delay the first vote on the issue until the council's October 6 meeting to gather facts on the issue. Morgan floated the idea, too, to form a task force to study the proposal. Further, he argued that laws like this one were better suited for lawmakers in Nashville, not in Memphis.
Boyd said Nashville lawmakers have given cities discretion to act on bill likes this, and pointed to county liquor laws as an example. As for the task force idea, Boyd said he was tired of black issues being put on the back burner.
“Whenever it comes to black people, we always say let’s get a committee together…and it’ll be fine,” Boyd said, noting that black people were a majority in the city. “We have to be intentional to make our people - my people - better.”
Morgan’s motion to delay the first vote was voted down by a majority of other council members on the committee. One a roll call vote after that, members of the committee passed the ordinance.
Voting to pass the ordinance from committee were council members Boyd, Jones, Phillip Spinosa, Edmund Ford Jr., and Jamita Swearingen. Voting against it were council members Brown and Fullilove. Morgan abstained.
This sets the proposal into motion for a full review by the council, community stakeholders, government agencies, and more. It also puts a timeline on the proceedings; should it not be delayed through the legislative process, it could become law in about six weeks.