At the conclusion of a lengthy debate on Tuesday, Memphis City Council passed a marijuana ordinance that would decriminalize the personal possession of up to half an ounce of cannabis. The marijuana ordinance passed by a slim vote of 7-6 and now gives the Memphis Police Department the option to hand out $50 fines or 10 hours of community service instead of arresting offenders. The number of community service hours would double up to a maximum 40 hours with each citation. The Memphis Police Department spend a lot of tax payer money on law enforcement, court and incarceration costs each year and the ordinance was save tax payers millions of dollars.
“Safer Than Nutmeg”
The man responsible for bringing the ordinance to council members is Councilman Berlin Boyd. He told council members that “in 2010, approximately 42 percent of drug arrests were for marijuana possession, costing the state almost $43 million. We recognize it is a definite problem and will ultimately save taxpayers’ money, and it is something we feel will benefit the citizens of Memphis.” The president of the Memphis chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, John Marek, supported Boyd’s statement, telling local media that now officers don’t need to spend so much time in court “over a substance that’s safer than nutmeg.”
The Second Such Marijuana Ordinance in Tennessee
Although marijuana is still illegal in the state, Memphis is the second city in Tennessee to support a similar ordinance to decriminalize marijuana with the intention of saving city resources for more serious crimes. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has not said whether he will be signing the ordinance but he has made it clear that he is giving it serious consideration. He said “I support the intent of the ordinance — to less severely punish non-violent offenders.”
A Lack of Cooperation from Law Enforcement
Unfortunately the director of the Memphis Police Department, Michael Rallings, is not in favor of the ordinance and has stated that he will still be instructing officers to arrest and charge marijuana offenders under the laws of the state. This means charging those in possession of even small amounts of pot with a misdemeanor crime, a $2500 fine and up to a year in jail. This kind of money, time in jail and criminal record is not only extremely expensive for tax payers, it also has the power to completely ruin a person’s life. Besides the cost and time in jail, the criminal record affects all future housing and employment options.
Beyond this, statistics show that despite the fact that pot possession occurs equally between white, black and brown people, it is usually only minorities that are arrested and charged for possession. Under the new ordinance, police would still have the right to discriminate on who they’d like to charge, but the focus would be placed on violent versus non-violent activities. This shift in focus may save a few people from being discriminated against and put police attention on pursuing more serious crimes. City officials now await the mayor’s response and are in discussions about what would need to occur to support the change.