Pubdate: Mon, 19 Sep 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Richard Fausset
Note: Headline from Print edition


NASHVILLE - Willie Nelson's famous habit of smoking marijuana is not
seen as a badge of outlaw courage here anymore, so much as the
frivolous foible of an eccentric uncle. A popular FM station
disgorging the Boomer rock hits of yesteryear calls itself Hippie
Radio 94.5; one of its sponsors is a smoke shop that incessantly hawks
glass pipes and detox kits. Even mainstream country acts mention
smoking marijuana now and again among the litany of acceptable
American pastimes.

So perhaps it is not surprising as much as telling that this city,
which residents often refer to as the Buckle of the Bible Belt, may be
on the cusp of joining the long roster of American cities, including
New York, that have decriminalized the stuff.

On Tuesday, the Metropolitan Council, the legislative body for the
consolidated city-county government here, will vote on a proposed
ordinance that would give the police an alternative to criminally
charging people caught with a half-ounce of marijuana or less.

Under the ordinance, officers will have the discretion to forgo a
misdemeanor charge for marijuana possession, and instead issue a civil
citation with a $50 fine. A judge could then suspend the civil penalty
if the person cited agrees to perform up to 10 hours of community
service. The goal here, as elsewhere, is to keep minor drug offenders
from clogging the court system, and relieving them of the stigma of a

It is hardly a sweeping measure, and hardly the most significant
American drug policy reform under consideration this year: In
November, voters in five states, including California, will consider
legalizing recreational marijuana, while at least three states,
including Florida and Arkansas, will decide whether to legalize its
medical use.

But the fact that the decriminalization proposal has a good chance of
passing here in Nashville - the great promulgator of heartland values
in song, and home to the conservative Southern Baptist Convention -
says something about the steady erosion of the fear of marijuana,
which, for many here, has come to seem about as threatening as a Lady
Antebellum ballad.

The fear in Nashville was palpable once. In October 1980, the city's
police chief, Joe Casey, declared in a front-page article in The
Tennessean that marijuana caused people to rob and kill. Anyone caught
growing or selling marijuana three times, Mr. Casey said, or selling
it to minors once, should be executed.

Asked at the time if it should be legalized, Mr. Casey replied, "God

Today, the sheriff of Davidson County, Daron Hall, has called the
proposed decriminalization ordinance a "step in the right direction"
to reduce incarceration rates. The current police chief, Steve
Anderson, said he was "neutral" on the bill. Sean Braisted, a
spokesman for Mayor Megan Barry, one of the South's most liberal
big-city mayors, said that Ms. Barry had not taken a position on the
ordinance, though "generally she's supportive of the idea of
decriminalizing marijuana."

A sponsor of the proposal, Councilman Russ Pulley, is a former police
officer and state trooper and retired F.B.I. agent, who chuckled when
asked if he smoked marijuana himself. (He does not.) He is among many
lawmakers around the country who believe that criminal justice
resources should be reserved for more serious matters, and worry that
criminal drug charges on the records of young people may prevent them
from finding good jobs.

"These kids that have made stupid mistakes - I hate to see them carry
these stupid mistakes with them the rest of their lives," Mr. Pulley

Others, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee,
have urged council members to approve the bill, arguing that black
residents have been disproportionately arrested on charges of
possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The proposal comes as mainstream country music, the city's signature
cultural export, has experienced an apparent uptick in mentions of pot
use in recent years. "Walkin' to the south out of Roanoke," Darius
Rucker sang in his hit "Wagon Wheel," which went to No. 1 in 2013 on
Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. "I caught a trucker out of Philly
had a nice long toke."

For Todd Snider, a singer-songwriter here with roots in country's less
commercial folk, outlaw and Americana strains - where songs about drug
use have long been common - the occasional mention of marijuana
smoking in mainstream country says something about where the middle of
the country stands.

"That's the barometer," he said of the mainstream country charts.
"Those guys don't say stuff that mom don't tolerate. And mom's like,
'Ah, pot's not so bad anymore.'"

Doak Patton, a Nashville native and president of the Tennessee chapter
of Norml, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws,
agreed. "It's not a big deal anymore," he said. "There used to be a
terrible stigma associated with it. I think that's gone."

But Mr. Patton, a former criminal prosecutor, said that almost no one
from the country music community had lent their support to his group.
He opined that some conservative fans might still view such activism
as inappropriate. "Agents just think it's the kiss of death here," he
added. "People are not as open as they are in Oakland."

Nashville, of course, is as much a city of health care executives as
it is country stars, and Mr. Patton said that his other supporters
represent a wide swath of everyday Nashvillians, including people
interested in marijuana's medical applications. Mr. Pulley, the
co-sponsor, said that a number of people in the music industry have
contacted him and told them they supported the idea.

The opposition so far has been scant. On Friday, a representative for
the Southern Baptist Convention declined to comment on the proposal.
The critics include State Representative William Lamberth, a
Republican, who argues that the proposal amounts to Nashville
"pretending to decriminalize" marijuana. If it passes, he said, police
officers could play favorites, giving a civil citation to people whom
they like, but slapping those they don't with a misdemeanor.

"My real worry is that they pass this ordinance, and all these people
in Nashville, and people who are visiting Nashville, think that it's
legal," he said.

But for Mr. Snider, who lives outside the city limits but still plays,
records and socializes in the city, the proposal seems like a move in
the right direction, especially for a city with a world-famous
creative-class economy.

On Thursday night, Mr. Snider, whose music straddles the line between
country, folk and rock, sat in his living room with a fat green bag of
marijuana on a table, occasionally packing it into a pipe and puffing
as he spoke of the life of a songwriter.

He described a good song as something to be caught, as if it were
butterfly. Marijuana, he said, afforded people like him a wider net.
It was, he said, an essential tool of Nashville's signature trade.

"For starters, our job is to lower our inhibitions," he said. "And
anyway, if Paul McCartney does it, you'd be a fool not to do it."
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MAP posted-by: Matt