Would legalizing marijuana decrease crime in Memphis? Experts say no

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tennessee lit the match for another heated discussion on the benefits of legalized marijuana. A bill before lawmakers would take away criminal charges  when someone is found with less than one ounce of pot.

“I think some of our laws, especially when it comes to marijuana, are archaic in nature,” Representative Antonio Parkinson said. “Unfortunately, we are last to the table when these changes are happening all across the country.”

Rep. Parkinson has been pushing for the decriminalization of pot.

But in a city with high crime, could making marijuana legal be an answer to decreasing crime numbers? Right now, it’s the number one drug arrest, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana works to legalize pot. The Memphis Chapter of NORMAL thinks it would help decrease crime numbers.

“Police quarterly sent out a study that showed police clearance rates actually improved in stated that legalized, so they are able to focus their resources on more violent crimes,”

But those who fight crime in Memphis say, not so fast.

Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich says when officers come in contact with someone who has a misdemeanor amount of marijuana, it rarely leads to an arrest.

“They are probably just gonna take the marijuana from them. Throw it away. They are going to, in some cases, give that person a misdemeanor citation, which is basically a traffic ticket,” she said. “There are very few people that are physically arrested for simple possession of marijuana.”

D.A. Weirich says a small amount of marijuana is not why people are getting locked up in Memphis.

“The cases that we prosecute that have to do with marijuana are the cases where people are selling it, distributing it, possessing large quantities of it.”

She showed WREG the stats on how marijuana usage lines up with other drug cases the District Attorney’s Office handles. In 2017, 216 cases out of some 20,000 were linked to marijuana. In 2018 it was 210.

“Those are the ones we know for certain relate to the drug marijuana,” Weirich said. “This conversation that we got all these people locked up in prison because they had tiny amounts of marijuana on them is not the reality in Shelby County, and it’s not the reality in Tennessee.”

She says those arrested are repeat offenders or people who committed other crimes and were found to have marijuana.

University of Memphis Psychologist Dr. James Murphy headed up a $400,000 grant-funded study on the effects of marijuana three years ago. He says there are other things to consider when looking at pot and crime.

“Overall, legalizing marijuana in the states that have done so has not had a big impact on crime. It has not completely eliminated the illicit market, and many people still choose to purchase marijuana illegally versus through legal sources,” Dr. Murphy said.

Rep. Parkinson believes legalization will have a direct impact on crime and things related to it.

“Do we want to tie up our law enforcement resources chasing and taking people to jail for not having small amounts of marijuana on them, or do we want to just cite them and let our officers be free to chase violent criminals,” he said.

One thing experts say bout legalizing marijuana is that it will likely lead to more addiction. So they say states should also allocate money for treatment.

Some type of change in Tennessee may come soon. One new bill was just introduced this session by Tennessee Senator Sara Kyle of Memphis. It again calls for reducing the penalty if a person is found with less than one ounce of marijuana.

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