A Republican lawmaker from Middle Tennessee is threatening to introduce legislation that would withhold state highway funds from Nashville or Memphis if they adopt what he calls “pretend marijuana decriminalization” measures.
State Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, said he is “strongly considering" filing a state bill next session that would penalize either city if it approves pending ordinances that seek to give people caught with small amounts of marijuana a chance to avoid a criminal record.
Lamberth, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, said his potential bill would seek to halt state highway funds from cities that do not enforce criminal penalties outlined in state law. Funding would continue again if a violating city overturns their policy. This past year, the state set aside $129.1 million in highway funds for Shelby County and $119.5 million for Davidson County.
“That’s not a bill that I would want to file, but it’s a bill that I’m certainly willing to file if Nashville and Memphis continue down this extraordinarily reckless and unjust path,” he said.
Lamberth’s threat comes as the Metro Council on Tuesday will consider giving final approval of legislation that would give Nashville police the option of reducing the penalty for people who are found in knowing possession of a half-ounce of marijuana or less to a $50 fine or 10 hours of community service.
The bill was originally drafted in a way that would have moved toward true decriminalization because it would have made a civil penalty automatic. But following concerns of the Metro Nashville Police Department, the council amended the bill’s language to simply give police the option of handing out a civil penalty instead of misdemeanor charge.
Lamberth said he’s in favor of criminal justice reform — he noted the legislature recently eliminated a requirement that third-time simple marijuana possession be an automatic felony — but he said giving police two options of penalties would create a “miscarriage of justice” and “a Russian roulette situation.”
Moreover, he argued that Tennessee’s two biggest cities would be ignoring state law that he contends make the local ordinances pointless in the first place.
“It will create two standards of justice where at the whim of an officer, one person may face a $50 fine, the next person found with a small amount of marijuana could face up to 11 months and 29 days in jail.
“Not to mention the fact that they’re calling it decriminalization and they’re not erasing the state statute at all,” he said. “I mean literally this smells and looks like a political stunt to curry favor with certain constituencies in my opinion.”
Lamberth, an attorney who faces re-election in November, is no stranger to funding threats. He was the House sponsor of legislation this year that changed the state’s DUI law, a move that federal transportation officials said put Tennessee in jeopardy of losing $60 million in federal highway funding. It prompted Gov. Bill Haslam to call a special legislative session last week to undo the measure.
Lamberth, who hinted at his possible bill on the House floor during last week’s session and says he’s discussed the measure with colleagues, said the experience with the federal government gave him the idea for the measure.
Under Tennessee law, violators of this offense face a Class A misdemeanor charge that is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Council sponsors of Nashville’s marijuana legislation have argued their proposal would work within the confines of state law. They’ve likened the measure to Metro’s law for litter or wearing seat belts, both of which have penalties that are not as severe as those outlined in state law.
“All counties have different laws,” said Councilman Dave Rosenberg, the lead sponsor of Nashville's proposal. “Every legislative body in the country passes laws for its own jurisdictions. This sort of thing already exists when it comes to littering and careless-driving laws.
“We’ll be voting (Tuesday),” he said. “If we backed away from doing our jobs every time there was a possibility that the state legislature would step in we’d really have nothing to do.”
In a statement, Mayor Megan Barry’s spokesman Sean Braisted said the threat of state intervention does not give Barry any concern about the local proposal.
Barry has stopped short of giving a position on the marijuana ordinance but has said she is “generally supportive” of decriminalization efforts. Nashville’s police department, which reports to the mayor, shifted from a stance of opposition to neutrality after the sponsors amended the bill to give more discretion to officers.
In a legal analysis, council attorney Mike Jameson cited several cities that have adopted marijuana ordinances where corresponding state law applies a more severe penalty. He said they include Philadelphia, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Tampa, Fla., and St. Louis. Jameson agreed that there are already instances in which Metro grants citations for actions deemed criminal offenses in state law.
“Municipalities in Tennessee may not adopt ordinances that contravene state law,” Jameson’s analysis reads. “However, proponents of this ordinance may reasonably contend that it does not contravene Tennessee’s current prohibition against marijuana possession.”
The Republican-controlled state legislature has intervened following several policy actions and debates in Democratic-leaning Nashville in recent years. Issues include affordable housing; local workforce participation on city construction projects; a nondiscrimination measure for gay, lesbian and transgender workers; and charter schools.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Beth Harwell, whose district includes Nashville’s Green Hills and surrounding neighborhoods, did not return an email seeking comment on the speaker’s position on both Nashville’s marijuana proposal and possible state intervention.
When the marijuana decriminalization effort cleared the council on Sept. 6 on a second of three readings, state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, was in attendance and watching from the front row of the council’s gallery. Kelsey, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not return messages from The Tennessean seeking comment.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has said he's "not a fan" of marijuana decriminalization efforts, pointing to substance abuse problems with the drug in society.
Proponents of Nashville’s measure have argued that individuals can be haunted their entire lives for simple possession of small amounts of marijuana. They say poor people of color are disproportionately affected. And they also argue that arrests for the violation are costly financially to local governments, including Nashville and Memphis.
While Nashville’s police department backed off its opposition earlier this month, Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson has also expressed concerns with decriminalization of marijuana. Among his issues is defining a small amount as one-half ounce, which he says is enough to create up to 50 joint cigarettes.
Groups or people that have backed Nashville’s ordinance include Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall, Public Defender Dawn Deaner, the Tennessee legislature’s Black Caucus and American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.