Like everywhere else in the South, marijuana isn’t legal in Tennessee. But since last fall, police in Nashville and Memphis have had a less-punitive alternative to an arrest and subsequent misdemeanor charge for someone caught possessing a small amount of cannabis. City councils in the state’s two largest cities both passed limited decriminalization efforts, which give cops the option of handing out a civil infraction—comparable to a parking ticket—for marijuana possession.
You can still be arrested and charged for marijuana possession, but if it’s less than a half-ounce, the cop might give you a break. Such a conservative and limited move is hardly legalization, but it’s nonetheless a significant step forward in the marijuana-unfriendly South. It’s also a big deal for civil liberties and racial justice advocates, as black people are arrested for marijuana possession at four times the rate of whites in Tennessee. As it happens, Memphis is a majority-black city, and Nashville is roughly 28 percent black.
Tennessee attorney general Herbert Slatery III is not black. Neither is William Lamberth, a state representative from the tiny hamlet of Cottontown and chairman of the Tennessee General Assembly’s House Criminal Justice Committee.We’re not saying that’s why Slatery declared both cities’ decriminalization efforts invalid, which was enough to scare Memphis into putting its decriminalization plan on hold.