Penalties for low-level drug offenses are too severe, according to some Shelby County Commissioners, who hope to petition the state to make changes once the legislative session reopens next year.
Monday night, commissioners approved a resolution requesting the state to allow counties and municipalities to decide how to distribute penalties to residents caught with small amounts of marijuana. If approved, it will allow first-time drug offenders in Shelby County to avoid arrest, if they are caught with less than a half-ounce of marijuana.
The add-on resolution, presented by Commissioners Tami Sawyer and Mickell Lowery requested that theTennessee General Assembly and Gov. Bill Lee amend the Tennessee Drug Control Act of 1989 to allow a county, city, town, municipality or metropolitan form of government the limited police power to regulate low-level marijuana offenses.
The Tennessee Drug Control Act of 1989 defines offenses concerning controlled substances and provides punishment through incarceration and an intricate fine. Currently in Tennessee, a possession of any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor charge, subject to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Lowery questioned what he viewed as Tennessee’s “outdated” stance.
“Neighboring states have passed similar ordinances, Arkansas and Mississippi,” he said. “And here we stand kind of behind the times on this issue.”
Lowery pointed out that the resolution isn’t meant to legalize drugs.
“I’m talking about small amounts of marijuana. Not to legalize it, but to decriminalize it. Because we know that blacks and minorities are disproportionately targeted for these offenses, 14 percent more than others”
He likened the new, proposed penalty to one of receiving a traffic ticket. Instead of being arrested, those caught with the small amount of marijuana would receive a citation but avoid jail time.
Commissioners voted 7-0 on the resolution, with commissioners Amber Mills, Michael Whaley and Mick Wright abstaining.
Both Wright and Mills asserted before voting that they needed more time to digest the information and gain more understanding surrounding its details. The state legislature would have to approve the request before it could be signed into law.
In other business
Although the budget approval deadline is quickly approaching, commissioners delayed a resolution approving $2.5 million for expanded pre-k. Voting was pushed back to June 19, where they will discuss a contract to appoint First 8 Memphis, a nonprofit childcare organization, to oversee the spending.
“I think the commissioners were all very supportive of pre-k, and clearly they want to see this happen,” said Kathy Buckman Gibson of First 8 Memphis. “That’s the ordinance they passed earlier this year … to fund these seats, so I’m hopeful the commission will follow through on that commitment and find the funding to be able to do so.”
Commissioners also approved the first reading to keep the tax rate the same. It’s currently $4.05 per $100 assessed value. The ordinance has to be approved in two additional readings before it can go into effect. The second reading is set for June 24.
Also, during Monday night’s meeting the Commission allocated $1 million in funds for the historic, Clayborn Temple construction.
The commission’s deadline to approve the 2019-20 budget is June 30.