Tennessee legislature again fails to act on cannabis policy reform in 2023
Tennessee is one of only 12 states without a viable medical cannabis program and one of 19 states that continues to imprison individuals for possessing small amounts of cannabis — possession of a half-ounce or less is punishable by nearly a year of incarceration.
The 2023 legislative session saw no successful movement pertaining to cannabis policy reform. Despite solid majorities of Tennesseans who crave reform, leadership in both houses remains the main choking point in passing legislation. Eighty-one percent (81%) of Tennessee voters support allowing patients and doctors to decide whether to use medical cannabis.
The Tennessee Medical Marijuana Commission has been studying other states’ programs with the goal of submitting recommendations to the legislature before the 2024 legislative session on how a program should be implemented and regulated. You can view the 2022 Commission’s report here.
Limited success to improve low-THC program in 2021
In the last improvement to the low-THC program in 2021, the legislature approved SB 118, which created a commission (the “the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Commission “) to study and consider medical cannabis. The bill also expanded the state’s ineffective CBD law by allowing additional medical conditions to qualify and increasing the allowable threshold of THC in CBD oils to 0.9%. The state’s low THC/CBD law grants legal protections from prosecution to patients enrolled in the program but with no legal access to cannabis products. Products must be purchased from legal dispensaries in states with reciprocity provisions in their medical cannabis programs and brought back to Tennessee.
While no regulatory structure has been enacted, SB 118 did expand the number of illnesses covered to include: a) Alzheimer's disease; b) Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); c) Cancer, when such disease is diagnosed as end stage or the treatment produces related wasting illness, recalcitrant nausea and vomiting, or pain; d) Inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis; e) Epilepsy or seizures; f) Multiple sclerosis; g) Parkinson's disease; h) Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS); j) Sickle cell disease; or i) Any other disease or condition recommended by the Medical Cannabis Commission pursuant to rules it promulgates.
In January 2022 the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Commission issued a report to the legislature recommending improvements to the high -CBD/low -THC program. The report did recommend that methods of delivery of cannabis products include oils, tinctures, patches, edibles, vapors, waxes but not dried flower. The Commission also recommended employee protections and parental rights for those participating in the program. Nursing home and school aged patients would have allowances for medical use on site. None of the recommendations were taken up by the General Assembly in 2022.
Current cannabis laws in Tennessee
Cannabis, for both medical and recreational uses, is not legal in Tennessee. However, there is an exception that allows the use of high-CBD, low-THC cannabis oil for seizure patients.
Possession and cultivation both remain illegal. Possession of any amount is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 11 months, 29 days in prison and up to a $2,500 fine. Cultivation of 10 plants or less is a felony, punishable by one to six years in prison, and the penalties increase significantly for each additional plant being grown.
Until 2016, third and subsequent convictions for the possession of cannabis were felonies, punishable by one to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000. But in 2016, the legislature reduced that penalty to a misdemeanor, so people convicted of non-violent possession of most drugs will no longer suffer the stigma of a lifelong felony record.
The state is blocking decriminalization. Meanwhile, the two largest cities in Tennessee – Memphis and Nashville – both passed ordinances in 2016 that gave an officer the discretion to charge someone with a civil infraction for possessing small amounts of cannabis.
ACLU study shows racially disparate cannabis enforcement
An ACLU report found that in 2018 Black individuals were arrested at more than three times the rate of white individuals in Tennessee, despite the fact that both races consume cannabis at about the same rate.
While legalization does not eliminate disparities, it dramatically reduces the total number of cannabis arrests — and thus the damage done by unequal enforcement. Encouragingly, five of the seven states with the lowest disparities had previously enacted legalization laws.
1981: In 1981, HB 314 created a therapeutic research program — which was operational — for cancer chemotherapy or radiology or glaucoma (cannabis or THC). The program was administered by a Patient Qualification Review Board within the Board of Pharmacy, which was authorized to contract with the federal government for cannabis. The program was repealed by SB 1818 in 1992.
2015: Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed SB 280 into law, against his earlier opposition. The bill legalized the possession and use of cannabis to treat a limited number of severe conditions, including epilepsy. The bill has no provisions for legal sale, thus requiring patients to acquire the drug outside the state of Tennessee; possession of CBD oil without proof that it was obtained legally outside of Tennessee is a misdemeanor.
2016: Tennessee tweaked its ineffective low-THC law by enacting HB 2144 on May 20, 2016. The law provides that patients may possess CBD oils with no more than 0.9% THC if they have “a legal order or recommendation” for the oil and they or an immediate family member have been diagnosed with epilepsy by a Tennessee doctor.
2017: The legislature enacted HB 1164, modifying Tennessee’s industrial hemp law to allow the production of hemp with 0.3% THC or less. The law requires hemp growers to be licensed by the Department of Agriculture. It also provides that hemp is not cannabis under the state’s controlled substances act if it is either (a) viable and possessed by a licensed hemp grower, or (b) nonviable and is procured in accordance with department rules.
2021: The legislature passed SB 118, which creates a study commission for medical cannabis and improves the CBD law by making it available for more conditions and increasing the allowable THC limit to 0.9%.
To stay updated on the status of marijuana policy reform in Tennessee, be sure to subscribe to MPP's alerts, if you haven't done so already.
While cannabis policy reform is sweeping the nation, Tennessee remains one of only 14 states with no effective medical cannabis law. But with your help, this can be the year Tennessee finally enacts a compassionate medical cannabis law!