Politics

As Nashville considers whether to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, we wondered whether a similar effort could take hold in Louisville.

The short answer is, despite some interest in doing so, a decisive no.

Kentucky state law blocks local lawmakers from passing legislation to decriminalize marijuana use or possession.

Laws related to marijuana possession fall under the state’s penal code, which is considered a “comprehensive scheme,” said Josh Abner, a spokesman for the Jefferson County Attorney’s office.

“Therefore, it leaves no room for local regulation,” he said.

This means any potential effort from Louisville Metro Council members to lessen the penalties for residents found in possession of small amounts of marijuana would be preempted by state law.

Such an effort is taking hold in Nashville, however.

Local legislators in that city are proposing to impose a $50 civil penalty on people who knowingly possess or exchange a half-ounce of marijuana, with the possibility of serving 10-hours community service in lieu of the paying the penalty, according to a report from The Tennessean. The legislation would allow those people to avoid a criminal charge.

Presently, such offenders in Tennessee face a criminal misdemeanor charge, punishable of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Nashville councilman Dave Rosenberg, who proposed the ordinance, said it’s misguided to burden offenders with criminal records for the possession of small amounts of marijuana, along with being a cost and time burden on police.

“It’s very unproductive,” he told The Tennessean.

Rosenberg’s proposal comes in the wake of efforts across the nation to lessen or remove the penalties associated with marijuana use and possession.

Lawmakers in Tampa Bay, Newark and State College, Pennsylvania have taken steps to reduce penalties for certain marijuana related violations.

And in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska marijuana is legal for adults, taxed and regulated. A handful of more states, including California and Arizona, will vote on legalization later this year.

Earlier this week, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency rejected a bid by two Democratic governors to loosen restrictions on marijuana, according to a report from NPR.

Kentucky state Rep. Darryl Owens, a Louisville Democrat and chair of the House judiciary committee, said Kentucky is a long way from considering recreational marijuana use.

Medical marijuana, however, is likely to be focal point of discussions among the 23-member Council on Criminal Justice Reform, Owens said.

The council was established earlier this summer by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin to examine the state’s penal code to seek a smarter, compassionate, evidence-based approach to criminal justice in Kentucky, according to the state’s department of public advocacy.

“What will come out of that, I don’t know,” Owens said.

He said discussing medical marijuana will bring forth a “greater review of the marijuana laws.”

And Rep. Denny Butler agrees.

The Louisville Republican joins Owens on the Criminal Justice Reform council and said recreational use and broad decriminalization is a long way away for Kentucky residents.

But a concerted effort to examine medical marijuana could start the dialogue.

“I think it’s a conversation we need to have,” he said. “Where do you draw the line on what’s criminal and not, that’s where it gets sticky.”

Presently, people found to be in possession of marijuana in Kentucky face a criminal misdemeanor charge, up to 45 days in jail and a $250 fine, according to state statute. A second offense warrants a felony charge and up to five years in prison, per state law.

Butler pointed to House Bill 463, passed in the 2011 General Assembly, for taking a step to lessen penalties for low-level marijuana offenses.

“I don’t see marijuana as the impact drug heroin has become,” he said.

Amber Duke, spokeswoman for the Kentucky American Civil Liberties Union, pointed to a 2013 report from the ACLU which suggests current marijuana laws need significant overhaul.

She said the current policy “has needlessly ensnared too many people in the criminal justice system.”

Metro jail officials are currently struggling with overcrowding. Earlier this year they announced they lack of space in the city’s jail facilities had hit a breaking point and officials began moving inmates in to a dated, under-qualified facility at a $60,000 a month cost.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.