Is Marijuana Possession Still a Misdemeanor in Tennessee?

You may have heard that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) decided to stop testing whether a substance is marijuana or hemp if you’ve been accused of carrying a half ounce (around 14 grams) or less.  This is more or less true, but it’s not the whole story.  Marijuana is still included on Tennessee’s list of illegal substances, and you can still be charged with a misdemeanor or felony for possession.  Here’s what the new policy means for marijuana users in Tennessee.

Here’s When Marijuana Possession Is Unlikely to Result in Conviction

The TBI has said they are opposed to decriminalizing marijuana in Tennessee, but despite that, they informed local District Attorneys and law enforcement leaders that they no longer plan to test small amounts of the plant to determine whether it is marijuana or hemp.  Because marijuana and hemp are so closely related, testing them is a labor-inducing process.  With the number of test requests the TBI receives—estimated to reach 10,000 this year if they continue apace—the time and resources that go into distinguishing marijuana aren’t worth it to the department.    

Possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana is charged as a misdemeanor in Tennessee, and you could be fined $250 if convicted.  Anyone found with a larger amount of the plant will face felony charges, which come with much greater consequences.  Because possession of small amounts typically signifies personal use rather than large-scale drug dealing, the TBI considers it a much less grave offense.  Therefore, if you fall into this group, don’t panic—you can likely avoid a criminal record even if you’re arrested.    

Yes, You Can Still Be Arrested

The TBI can’t change the law, so police officers can still arrest and cite you for possession of marijuana, even if you only have a small amount with you.  The new policy kicks in after your arrest: Because hemp is legal in Tennessee, the TBI’s refusal to test the substance will make it nearly impossible for prosecutors to build a drug possession case.  Some judges have already dismissed cases where the state cannot back up drug charges with evidence.  After this announcement, many more will likely follow suit—or prosecutors may decide it’s not worth it to press charges at all.

However, it’s important to note that the DA has discretion to ask TBI for testing on even small amounts of a plant they assume to be marijuana.  The guidelines suggest the TBI would prefer the DA only make this request in extreme circumstances.  It remains to be seen how the DA will treat the new policy.    

Some decriminalization advocates claim that, especially with this caveat, the new policy will not make much difference.  People caught possessing small amounts of marijuana are typically sent through a drug diversion program, which allows participants to request the removal of charges after they complete probation.  Our team at Meade Law Group disagrees with this evaluation for a few reasons.  First, diversion programs are only available to anyone who hasn’t participated in one before—meaning if you’re arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana more than once, you will face criminal charges.  Second, diversion programs typically require you to plead guilty before starting your probation.  If you’re unable to finish the program for any reason, that plea will stay on your record.  And finally, the money and time involved in expunging a charge can make it harder for some people to complete the process once they’re allowed to.  We think it’s much better to not face charges at all.  

Don’t Get a Misdemeanor for Harmless Marijuana Use

Though the new policy isn’t airtight, it does give most Tennesseans some wiggle room when it comes to marijuana possession.  As long as you’re caught with less than half an ounce, you have a real chance of successfully contesting the charges.  Don’t go for the guilty plea if you don’t have to.  Meade Law Group is here to defend you against drug charges and help you navigate our complicated judicial system.  

To learn more, contact us online or call (423) 464-7779 to speak to an experienced drug crimes lawyer.