It’s time to decriminalize marijuana

Scott Frith
Government/Politics columnist

Last month, Nashville approved an ordinance to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Nashville police now have the option of issuing a civil citation for marijuana possession instead of a criminal one.

Did Nashville make marijuana legal?

No.

Decriminalization is not legalization. Complete legalization would mean that a person could sit in their home and legally smoke marijuana. With decriminalization, those walking down the street with a marijuana joint in their pocket would still be breaking the law but could be issued a civil citation by police (something similar to a parking ticket) instead of a criminal citation.

It’s a small step, but a good one. Here’s why.

Under current law, possessing even a small amount of marijuana is punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in the county jail and a $2,500 fine. Criminal convictions have wide-ranging negative consequences. In addition to possible jail time, a criminal conviction often impacts employment and educational opportunities.

It’s tough enough to find a good job in today’s economy. It’s even more difficult when you have a criminal record. Thanks to the internet, arrest records and mug shots linger on forever. Smoking a joint at a party or concert can haunt someone well into their future.

Decriminalization is not a perfect solution. In fact, it probably doesn’t go far enough. Until we treat drug use as a public health problem instead of a criminal justice problem, too many lives will be shadowed by criminal convictions. Also, the discretion given to the police creates its own problems. Giving an officer discretion to issue either a civil or criminal citation can result in disparate outcomes for low-income and minority residents accused of a crime.

Ultimately, our laws should reflect our values. If it’s OK for a kid to smoke weed in college, then it should be legal. If it’s OK for someone to smoke marijuana in the privacy of their own home, then it should be legal.

Legalization, with regulations similar to tobacco or alcohol, would likely result in better overall outcomes than current laws.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that smoking marijuana is a good thing. I’m not a doctor. I’m the least qualified to discuss the pros and cons of marijuana versus tobacco or any other substance.

However, the decriminalization of marijuana is a much-needed first step in accepting shifting social norms. Nearly 50 years after Woodstock, and as baby boomers enter retirement, it’s time for our laws to reflect that reality.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, after the decriminalization bill passed the Metro Council, released a statement: “This legislation is a positive step forward in addressing the overly punitive treatment of marijuana possession in our state that disproportionately impacts low-income and minority residents.”

Mayor Barry is right. Nashville is showing leadership.

It’s time for Mayor Madeline Rogero and Knoxville City Council to show leadership as well.

Scott Frith is a local attorney. You can visit his website at pleadthefrith.com.

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