By Adrian Sainz
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and Tennessee House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh expressed support Thursday for eliminating criminal punishment for possessing small amounts of marijuana statewide if elected governor.
The Democrats, along with Republicans Beth Harwell and Randy Boyd, attended a forum sponsored by the Tennessee Bar Association and The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. The candidates seeking to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam answered questions on Confederate statues, the Memphis industrial megasite, immigration and legal topics such as cash bail reform. The issues could play roles in voters’ decisions during the August primaries and the November general election.
Republican candidates Diane Black and Bill Lee did not attend the forum, where criminal justice reform also was discussed.
Dean said he would look into getting the General Assembly to change the state Criminal Code to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana.
Currently, Tennessee law imposes a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine for people caught with a half-ounce or less of marijuana.
Supporters of decriminalization say it will allow officers to spend more time on the streets fighting serious crimes rather than locking people up for minor ones. Many say they also will help eliminate racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests.
A September 2014 report by the Center on Juvenile Justice and Criminal Reform, citing statistics in five states that implemented marijuana reforms, concluded that blacks were more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than all other races and ethnicities.
Dean said the current approach disproportionately affects minorities “even though the majority of the population uses marijuana probably as much as anybody else.” Those who are hit with a misdemeanor conviction for having a small amount of the drug could be prevented from getting jobs and housing, Dean said.
“I’m not advocating legalization of marijuana, but I am looking at trying to prevent a generation of people be harmed forever because of a mistake they make when they’re young,” Dean said.
Fitzhugh said he has backed decriminalization for simple possession, saying he’s glad Dean has “come forward” on the issue.
“It is an issue that everybody that can get around — those that believe it’s the right thing to do and those that believe that it’s costing us too much money to incarcerate those types of individuals,” Fitzhugh said after the forum.
During a break in the forum, Harwell, the state House speaker, said she has backed medical marijuana legislation but she does not want to make it easier on recreational use. Harwell said she would be “open to what the Legislature wanted to do” but she would not actively push for decriminalization.
“It would have to get through the Legislature, and I believe it would be a difficult process,” she said.
Boyd, a businessman and the state’s former chief economic development officer, said he would not support it.
In 2016, Tennessee’s two largest cities — Nashville and Memphis — authorized their police officers to issue a civil citation for a $50 fine or community service to someone caught with a half-ounce or less of marijuana.
Then, in 2017, Haslam signed legislation stripping Nashville and Memphis of their ordinances. The General Assembly would have to amend or change state law for cities to make such ordinances.
More than two dozen U.S. cities have passed ordinances easing penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Candidates also were asked about the removal of statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from two parks in Memphis last December. Dean and Fitzhugh supported the city’s decision to exploit a loophole in a state law barring the removal of historical monuments from public property by selling the parks to a nonprofit.
Harwell said she is not in favor of the removal of historical statues. Boyd said it’s important to protect history but noted Memphis did not break the law.