City council passes marijuana ordinance - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

City council passes marijuana ordinance

(SOURCE: WMC Action News 5) (SOURCE: WMC Action News 5)

Memphis City Council passed an ordinance that will reduce the penalty for people found with small amounts of marijuana.

"Thrilled that the council came together, did the right thing," John Merek, attorney, said.

Merek has been one of the leading advocates for the ordinance that makes possession of a half an ounce of marijuana or less a civil offense, rather than a state criminal misdemeanor offense.

Those caught with a small amount of marijuana will face a $50 fine or up to 10 hours of community service for the first offense.

While the majority of city council members supported the ordinance, MPD Director Mike Rallings and District Attorney Amy Weirich did not. Both Rallings and Weirich opposed the ordinance and said it sends the wrong message to the community.

"My hope as a criminal defense attorney is that people in Memphis are now not going to have these burdensome criminal records as they go and try to apply for student aid and as they go and try to get jobs," Marek said.

Supporters believe it will free up police officers to focus on more serious crimes.

In the ordinance, it emphasizes that the passing of the ordinance does not mean Memphis City Council supports or encourages the use of marijuana or any other controlled substances, but finds that when a person's only offense is possession or casual exchange of marijuana for personal use, criminal penalties are "disproportionate to the severity of the offense."

According to statistics released by the council, in 2015 nearly 3,800 arrests were made in Shelby County for those possessing less than one-half ounce of marijuana. Nearly 90 percent of those arrested were African-Americans.

Marek said the ordinance still gives officers discretion to charge someone with the civil offense or the state criminal offense, but he hopes the ordinance addresses what he sees as disproportionate enforcement. 

"I just hope that when officers exercise their discretion, they don't do it in a discriminatory manner, since we have no control over that," Marek said.

A judge has the opportunity to sentence the person caught with a small amount of marijuana to community service. If the person agrees and performs community service, the $50 fine will be waived. The amount of community service required depends on the person's record: 10 hours for a first offense, 20 hours for a second offense, 30 hours for a third offense, 40 hours for a fourth offense.

In addition to the fine being waived, if community service is completed, the public records relating to the offense will be removed from official court records. However, a confidential record will be kept by the city court clerk for use in determining future fines or community service on subsequent offenses.

MPD Director Mike Rallings was not enthusiastic about the vote.

"There's some things that are left to be worked out," Rallings said.

To read the full proposal, click here. (PDF)

Among the things that are left to be worked out is how MPD and the city courts will implement the ordinance and enforce the penalties of a $40 fine or 10 hours of community service for the first offense.

"I still have questions about the amount," Rallings said. "But, you know, it's passed. So, now it's our job to work with the clerk's office and the city courts and see how this will be implemented."

Rallings also wants to make sure people understand the council's ordinance does not make marijuana possession legal.

"I don't speak for the council," Rallings said. "The council gets to make the law. The legislature makes the law and we enforce it and that's what we're gonna continue to do."

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