Nashville’s Decriminalization Law: “Let The Cops Decide”

Nashville’s decriminalization ordinance isn’t what it first seemed to be.

Lawmakers just passed a city ordinance that many thought would solidify the decriminalization of a half ounce or less of cannabis and require the issuing of a $50 fine or community service instead of arrest and jail. But, that’s not the case here; what the ordinance does is allow police to decide whether they want to enforce state law and make an arrest or let it be a civil matter.

There are a ton of issues with this.

Cops Shouldn't Be Arbitrarily Deciding What The Law Is

Whether you believe all cops are good, all cops or bad, or anything inbetween, they have no business deciding what the law is, whether it’s broadly or applied on a case by case basis.

They aren’t elected officials, first of all, and second, while officers are allowed to use their discretion on judging whether someone’s behavior breaks the law or not in many situations, possession of a half ounce of cannabis or less is pretty… well… cut and dry.

There isn’t much room for mental gymnastics on that one. It either is or it isn’t a half ounce or less.

Where the problem comes in here is that they get to decide who is arrested for what is still fully a crime in Tennessee. This is something that is massively open to abuse, as if the United States didn’t have enough problems with biased and corrupt police already.

They All But Said They're Going To Ignore It

The original version of the bill forced the issuance of a $50 fine only for possession of half an ounce or less of cannabis, but the Metro Nashville Police was staunchly against it. Before the bill was passed, it was edited to give police the ability to fine OR make an arrest.

What’s funny about this?

“Consequently, I feel comfortable in moving my position to neutral, neither opposing or advocating passage.” — Police Chief Steve Anderson

What exactly does that mean?

Read between the lines. They were totally against an ordinance that makes police issue a civil fine for possession, but now are suddenly only neutral when that same ordinance allows them to arrest.

Why not be all for it? It sounds to me like they’ll end up having a department policy of “arrest only”.

It Works For Some Cities, Not For Others

Other police departments in cities that have passed ordinances like this have been issuing guidance on when it would be appropriate to make an arrest versus issue a fine, but like I stated earlier, this is the problem.

Miami’s ordinance seems to have worked out in the favor of the public, unless the person was using it in public or driving a vehicle. The problem with that is that in both instances, the additional behavior of public use or driving a vehicle while using are illegal by themselves.

The Tampa ordinance is similar, but police there just don’t GAF. The Hillsborough County police department has decided to keep arresting people, anyway, because possession remains against state law. State attorneys even play along with local law enforcement, stating that “we will treat it as a criminal charge just like we always have”.

Nashville Judges Are Concerned

Some Nashville judges are expressing concern about the new ordinance, stating that changing it from a criminal to a civil matter could create problems for people wanting to get records of that activity expunged.

The problem is that a civil fine would create a public record of the incident, even if it’s not a criminal one. Civil records are only expunged when the matter is dismissed or just isn’t prosecuted.

And Don't Forget Racism

The odds of racism creeping into the enforcement (or lack of enforcement) of an ordinance like this is high. With the problems that minorities in the United States are having with police right now, an ordinance that’s as open to bias as this one is probably won’t help matters much. In fact, it may just exacerbate the problem.

I guess we’ll just have to see how the Metro Nashville Police Department deals with it. Prove me wrong about you, MNPD.

At Least One Lawmaker Has Made Threats

Representative William Lamberth (R-Cottonwood) has made the threat that if the ordinance passed, he would withhold federal funding for highways in Nashville and in Memphis.

What highway funding has to do with pot, I have no idea. It seems largely like a bully who’s been told “no, we’re not doing that today” and he threatens to punch the oblivious nerd at the lunch table across the room.

“I hope it would accomplish that they wouldn’t pass this ordinance,” Lamberth said, “and if they do, they’ll take it back off the books. I hope that that is a large enough penalty and a large enough incentive not to do something like this.” — Leafly

If this isn’t a bully throwing his weight around, I don’t know what is.

He says it’s about “equality” and “being fair”, but maybe he’s forgetting that this law could potentially do some good for the people who do get only fines. Perhaps the Metro Nashville Police has enough good cops in it to start the tide turning. We’ll just have to see. Some good is better than no good.

And the law requiring everyone simply possessing cannabis be arrested and given a criminal record isn’t good at all.