NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Nashville District Attorney General Glenn Funk announced on Wednesday that his office will no longer prosecute individuals for possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana.
“Marijuana charges do little to promote public health, and even less to promote public safety,” Funk’s office said in a statement explaining the decision.
The new policy will benefit people who would otherwise have to deal with criminal charges and possible jail time with corresponding negative consequences to their employment and housing. Charges for minor marijuana offenses disproportionately impact minorities, the statement said, citing demographic statistics.
Under Tennessee law, possession of a half-ounce of marijuana or less is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
The change is also expected to decrease court and jail costs. Funk’s office said the resources going toward prosecuting minor marijuana offenses “must be devoted to supporting victims and prosecuting violent crime.”
Funk said the voters elect their district attorneys, and those district attorneys decide where to allocate the resources of their offices and how to prioritize cases.
“Prosecutorial discretion is inherent in the Constitution,” he said. “I would be shocked if the legislature tried to legislate away prosecutorial discretion on cases involving less than a half-ounce of marijuana, especially when the racial disparities of the cases are as pronounced as they are here.”
The policy “reflects what we have been doing in practice for the past year and a half.”
Funk said it was important to announce it because “it is important for all parts of the Nashville community to know that the criminal justice system is working to be good stewards of the resources given to them and working to make sure the system is fair.”
In Nashville, Black people have made up at least 64% of the arrests in each year since 2014 for simple possession of marijuana, while white people have at most made up 36% in a given year, according to the Metro Office of Criminal Justice Planning.
Both Nashville and Memphis tried to ease criminal punishment for marijuana possession in 2016 by authorizing police to issue a civil citation for a $50 fine or community service to someone caught with a half-ounce or less. The move was met with a backlash from the Republican supermajority General Assembly, which banned cities from issuing civil citations for marijuana possession the following year.
In response to Funk’s move, GOP House Speaker Cameron Sexton said Wednesday that he thinks all laws must be enforced. Senate Speaker Randy McNally said prosecutors should not “usurp legislative authority by picking and choosing which laws to enforce.”
“If local officials do not agree with or want to change our laws, they should be changed and not circumvented by those who are tasked with enforcing them,” Sexton said in his statement.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper said in a statement Wednesday that he supported Funk’s decision.
“We need to continue working to ensure that people have access to drug treatment and that we are doing everything we can to keep nonviolent young people out of the criminal justice system,” Cooper said.
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