There is a new law that will affect how Memphis police crackdown on marijuana.
The Memphis City Council voted 7 to 6 on Tuesday to narrowly approve a new ordinance that decriminalizes small amounts of weed.
Marijuana is not legal in Memphis now. It did not become the Colorado of the Mid-South.
The ordinance means that if someone in Memphis is busted walking around, driving with, or even smoking less than an half ounce of pot, they will face a $50 fine and potentially community service.
In the past, the offense was a criminal misdemeanor, and people faced up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
It is a nearly identical ordinance to one Nashville's city council passed two weeks ago.
Councilmen Berlin Boyd and Martavius Jones co-sponsored the ordinance, because of local statistics they found troubling.
In 2015, nearly 3,800 arrests were made in Shelby County for those possessing less than one-half ounce of marijuana or paraphernalia. Nearly 90-percent of those arrested were African American.
In 2010, approximately 42-percent of Tennessee’s drug arrests were for marijuana possession, which cost the state almost $43 million.
Not all statistics are in favor of the ordinance though. MPD Director Michael Rallings said he did not speak in favor of or against the ordinance, but he did show a Powerpoint presentation with facts about marijuana DUI’s and marijuana and handgun statistics.
The debate and discussion lasted more than an hour. Seven members of the public spoke, six of them encouraged the council to pass the ordinance. Only one spoke against.
“I’m thrilled that the council came together and do the right thing. I hope this sends a message to state government that look across the country, over half the country has medical marijuana,” said John Marek, a defense attorney who spoke in favor of decriminalization.
State Representative G.A. Hardaway was also at the meeting to observe how his city reacted to something that will likely be discussed at the state level soon.
“We know we have serious disparities, we know we have issues which prevent our young people from getting educational opportunities, preventing them from getting job opportunities, and at some point we’ve got to look at the big picture,” said Representative Hardaway.
Not everyone was wild about the lesser penalty though.
Nearly half the council members and MPD had concerns about the ramifications.
"I think there are still questions about, if you heard, how the ordinance is written. If a person doesn't agree to community service, I think they don't [have to] do it," said Director Rallings.
"We don't know what's going to come from this. We don't know how effective it will be," said Councilman Worth Morgan, who tried to delay the ordinance before ultimately voting against it. "We are going to be getting some numbers back. That's part of the ordinance, asking for data from police based on gender, race, to find out how they affect us. So, time will tell."
Time will ultimately answer the questions still looming after Tuesday’s decision.
Will less young African American men be incarcerated for small drug crimes?
Will police be able to focus more on violent crime?
Will legalization lead to more problems or addiction?
Memphis may soon have the answers to those questions and many more.
Police still have the option to crackdown with the state’s criminal penalty. Director Rallings did not indicate they would though.
It also remains to be seen if and how the misdemeanor courts will mandate community service.
The ordinance does not change DUI laws or prohibit employers from drug testing.
Councilman Jones said he hopes the ordinance helps Memphians who would struggle to gets jobs with a record have better opportunities for success, not lose out on jobs because of positive drug tests.
Cox Media Group