Common Sense Pot Policy 

Unlike Bill Clinton, I've inhaled. So have 49 percent of all Americans, according to a recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Marijuana (medical or otherwise) has been decriminalized or legalized in 23 states, and measures are on the ballot to legalize it in five more states this November, including Arizona, Nevada, Massachusetts, Maine, and California (where medical pot is already legal). A recent Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans think pot should be legalized and regulated like alcohol.

There's a legal doobie in your state's future, dude. It's a matter of when, not if.

City Councilman Berlin Boyd proposed an ordinance in council committee Tuesday that would allow Memphis police officers to charge people found in possession of less than a half-ounce (14.2 grams) of weed with a civil penalty of $50 and the possibility of performing community service. The Nashville Metro Council is also considering such a measure.

This is a good idea. Drug arrests for small amounts of marijuana clog our judicial system, tie up public defenders and police officers, and result in criminal records and jail time for what is essentially a victimless crime. A disproportionate number of those charged with this crime are young and black.

Boyd's proposal isn't exactly cutting-edge thinking. In Mississippi, for example, possession of 30 grams of pot or less has been a misdemeanor since 1978. The Magnolia State has also legalized medical marijuana on a limited basis. Let that sink in: Mississippi has a more enlightened marijuana policy than we do.

It shouldn't be surprising that public opinion has swung in this direction. Pot use has become normalized since the 1960s, when it first became widespread among the youth culture. In fact, nearly three-fourths of Americans, according to a 2014 CNN/ORC survey, are now of the opinion that pot is less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes. Increasingly, states are realizing that there is money to be made in regulating the sale of marijuana, much as they do alcohol and tobacco, and policy follows the money.

Boyd's ordinance makes a lot of sense for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that it recognizes the reality of public opinion and the resultant change that's sweeping our country's pot laws.

In Tuesday's committee hearing, the proposed ordinance was opposed by Memphis Police Director Mike Rallings, a representative of the Memphis Fire Department, and several city council members. Some of these opponents conflated marijuana use with harder drugs, and cited pot as a gateway drug, a theory that has been thoroughly debunked. The council committee ultimately voted to send Boyd's ordinance to the full council for consideration. I hope they will pass it, but even if they do, the issue sorely needs to be taken up at the state level. Tennessee's pot laws need to be modified to reflect the current reality: Legalized marijuana is going to happen at some point.

Many years ago, I sat through a parent drug-education class at one of my children's high schools where a counselor gravely warned us that most heroin users had smoked marijuana. I suspect most of the baby-boomer parents in that room had smoked pot in their youth and were probably thinking the same thing I was: Yes, and those heroin users had probably drunk alcohol and smoked cigarettes, too. And almost certainly they had eaten cheeseburgers. All were potential gateway substances in this reductive-reasoning scenario.

Half of the American population has smoked pot. If that habit really led to heroin addiction, we'd be in serious trouble — and states wouldn't be legalizing weed, one after the other.

It's well past time for Memphis — and the state of Tennessee — to get real about pot. It's time to catch up to Mississippi.


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