Memphis, Nashville could pay penalty for pot decriminalization

If the Nashville and Memphis city councils move ahead with plans for modified marijuana decriminalization, state Rep. William Lamberth says he may move to stop sending state highway funding to the cities.

From The Tennessean:

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.

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.