The Memphis City Council lowered the city’s charges on simple possession of marijuana Tuesday, the second city in Tennessee to do so.
Last month, council member Berlin Boyd proposed an ordinance that would give Memphis Police Department (MPD) officers a choice on charging those caught with possessing a half ounce (or less) of marijuana. Under the proposal, MPD officers could write the offender a $50 ticket from the city or they could enforce existing state rules on possession, a misdemeanor charge that comes with the possibility of up to a year in jail and a maximum $2,500 fine.
A weeks-long debate preceded Tuesday’s final vote in the Memphis City Council chamber (which was preceded by an hour-long debate there) on the measure.
Votes for the ordinance seemed to be lined up given statements from several council members, like Janis Fullilove who said “when this ordinance is, in fact, passed tonight.” Also, council member Frank Colvett who said “I know where the vote is going tonight and I understand [why that is].”
Many of those voting for the ordinance said, in speeches before the vote, that marijuana was illegal and the new ordinance would not decriminalize it. Though, the move certainly deflated the penalty for possessing marijuana here. Fullilove thought the move was a “political kickball” that used African-American males.
“People believe there is a bigger, bigger program that is in play here, Coucnilman Boyd, like in Denver, or in state of Colorado, which is a great thing” Fullilove said.
She alluded to the fact that, perhaps, moves like these opened the doors for those in the marijuana industry, like dispensary owners, to make more money, “for the greedy to become even greedier and the powerful and the wealthy to become even more powerful.”
Boyd said he proud of the ordinance, noting it “was from the heart and there are no ulterior motives, no set up. It’s just a way to help address Memphis’ problems.”
Boyd said the ordinance was ahead of the Nashville ordinance, which came last month, because the Memphis law mandates a report be given to the council by police officials on the gender and racial breakdown of who has been issued a city citation for simple possession.
He also made a comparison of those high on weed to those drunk on alcohol.
“A person on marijuana is in a very chill mode,” Boyd said. “Drunk people, they talk all over you and they slobber all over you and that’s not cool.”
Council member Patrice Robinson said she supported the ordinance because “we know there is a disparity between African-American [males] and white males, especially with this issue."
“We no longer can keep doing the same thing we’ve done in the past to create a new reality,” Robinson said. “That does not work.”
MPD director Michael Rallings said he had concerns about the ordinance, especially the amount of marijuana concerned. He said he and his staff were able to roll 37 joints with a half ounce of weed. Counterparts in Nashville, he said, were able to roll 100.
He said if the ordinance was passed, he’d direct his officers to continue to enforce state rules, until city courts were ready to administer the new rules. He was not sure how long that would take.