Nashville aims to track marijuana law to prevent bias

Nashville police have more discretion to decide how to charge people caught with small amounts of marijuana following action by the Metro Council two weeks ago.

Now, council members and others are outlining efforts to track marijuana arrests and citations to try to prevent potential bias from playing out with the new law.

The concern: making sure that minorities, low-income residents and others aren’t disproportionately charged with harsher Class A misdemeanor penalties as opposed to lighter civil penalties.

The new Metro law gives police the option to issue a $50 civil fine for those found in possession of small amounts of marijuana. It allows people to avoid a criminal record. But police can still pursue a Class A misdemeanor charge that is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

“We can’t have a bunch of MBA kids getting civil citations and Pearl-Cohn kids getting busted,” said At-large Councilman Bob Mendes, referring to the predominantly white and affluent private school Montgomery Bell Academy and the mostly black Pearl-Cohn High School in North Nashville.

Mendes, who was speaking before a council committee that deals with legal issues, said he plans to file a resolution that would outline a mechanism to track the number of marijuana arrests versus citations by race, gender and other demographics.

One option could call for the Metro Police Department to self-report on the cases. Another could be to monitor them through the court system.

His push comes after the the council voted 35-3 on Sept. 20 to take a step toward marijuana decriminalization by giving Nashville police the option of civil penalties for people in knowing possession of a half-ounce of marijuana or less.