September 20, 2016, Nashville looked like it was blazing a trail.
“Every way you could split people up they voted for it,” says Metro councilman, Dave Rosenberg.
The decision was overwhelming from city government, a 35 to three vote in favor of marijuana decriminalization. Nashville was the first city in Tennessee to make possessing a half ounce of weed punishable by only a $50 ticket.
Councilman Rosenberg sponsored the bill. It was his goal to start small.
“It’s very limited in scope, small amounts, simple possession only,” he says.
But it only took seven months for action from Capitol Hill. The state legislature passed a new law, overruling Nashville’s.
Even State Attorney General, Herbert Slatery weighed in, issuing this opinion; “A municipal ordinance that attempts to regulate a field that is regulated by state statute, cannot stand if it is contradictory to state law.”
At the time, Memphis followed Nashville’s lead, but its law was also overturned.
“There was a lot of hypocrisy involved in it,” says Rosenberg. “Ultimately we lost the authority to make a very positive change in Nashville.”
Metro Council passed decriminalization to give law enforcement a chance to focus on more pressing crimes. Rosenberg admits the repeal was frustrating. He says, a misdemeanor criminal charge for pot possession, the current penalty, unfairly sticks with the offender long term.
“It makes it hard to get student loans, or to get housing, get a job,” he says. “And you’re really setting people up for failure.”
But even though pot possession is a criminal offense, prosecutors Davidson County provide opportunities to erase those charges.
“If you’ll attend a class, then the case will be dismissed,” says Assistant District Attorney, Ed Ryan.
Ryan explains, in spite of the charges, the courts make treatment and counseling available. First-time offenders get a second chance at having the crime expunged.
“We also look at the individual,” Ryan says. “(If) they’re a user and they have a problem, we need to get them some counseling and some treatment, some help.”
In 2018, 2,100 people were charged in Nashville for simple possession, 80 were arrested. Ryan adds decriminalization can sometimes limit an officer’s ability to thoroughly investigate if a bigger crime is being covered up.
It’s now 2019. Locally, the smoke has cleared. The weed wave is catching fire in 10 other states, yet there are no plans out of City Hall to try again.
“It’s pretty hopeless,” says Rosenberg. “To vilify it while holding a drink in your hand is the height of hypocrisy. I don’t think it’s going to happen in our lifetimes in Tennessee.”
For that to be wrong, change must be sparked from the top down.