NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The state attorney general said on Wednesday afternoon that city ordinances that decriminalize small amounts of marijuana violate state law.
In September, the Metro Council approved a bill in a 35-3 vote that allows officers the discretion to give someone a $50 fine or community service if they are found with less than a half ounce of marijuana. Memphis approved a similar ordinance in October, but only by a 7 – 6 vote.
“A municipal ordinance that attempts to regulate a field that is regulated by state statute cannot stand if it is contradictory to state law,” AG Herbert Slatery wrote in his opinion.
“By giving police officers the option to issue a municipal citation instead of a criminal warrant for marijuana possession, the city ordinances bypass the district attorney general’s authority to prosecute the offense under the Drug Control Act,” Slatery said.
State lawmakers backed his opinion.
“It’s been clear for over 130 years that it’s the state legislature that has the ability to pass criminal laws and the ability to appeal criminal laws,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey of Shelby County. “In essence, what Metro and Memphis are trying to do is repeal a criminal law. They just don’t have that power.”
Sumner County Rep. William Lamberth also supported the attorney general.
“The attorney general has made it very clear. Nashville doesn’t have the authority to just ignore whatever criminal law they don’t like,” Lamberth said.
In light of the attorney general’s opinion, Memphis suspended the ordinance Wednesday evening while the city reviews the report.
The Nashville Department of Law is also reviewing the opinion, but the city has not made any changes to how police handle simple possession and some Metro council members are confident the ordinance does not violate state law.
“We feel very strongly that we vetted that thoroughly,” District 25 Metro Councilman Russ Pulley said. “We have a state legislature that’s very conservative and a very conservative state government. We knew we had an uphill battle here.”
State lawmakers have threatened to withhold highway funding from cities that don’t repeal the ordinance. For Nashville, that means $119 million could hang in the balance.
“That not the first time they’ve said that,” Pulley said. “I think that’s ridiculous, but that’s their prerogative and we’ll see what happens when they reconvene in January.”