50 States

50 States: Tennessee

By Jon Young

Medical: CBD-oil only
Recreational: No
Decriminalized: No

In 2014, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill to legalize the use of cannabidiol (CBD) oil for patients suffering from certain forms of seizures, signalling a shift in attitudes in the conservative state. A year later, the bill was determined to be ineffective, and another bill, SB 280, was signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam.

"I'm going to trust people like John Dreyzehner, our commissioner [of the Tennessee Department of Health], in terms of the fears that he has around medical marijuana and some of the issues there versus cannabis oil, which he feels like can help some people in very specific situations," Haslam told reporters after signing the bill.

SB 280 allows patients to get a recommendation from a physician to obtain CBD oil for the treatment of severe seizures. However, the oil must be obtained out of state, and those caught buying, selling or producing within the state face a criminal misdemeanor. For some, though, the laws are not progressive enough.

“We can’t make progress because we’ve got doctors in our senate that say they need more proof when there are already thousands upon thousands of studies out there,” said Lyn McKinney, a representative for the Tennessee activist group Parents 4 Pot, Grannies 4 Grass, according to the Daily Helmsman. “You can’t spell pharmaceutical without harm, and you can’t spell healthcare without THC.”

Medical cannabis is making progress in the state with 76 percent of Tennesseans in favor of medical marijuana (MMJ), according to a poll conducted by the Tennessee Cannabis Coalition. Recreational cannabis could still be a ways off, though there has been a push for reducing penalties for those caught in possession of cannabis.

Previously, anyone caught in possession of cannabis faced a misdemeanor with up to a year in jail and a fine of between $250 and $2500. Additionally, third and subsequent offenses are felonies with a punishment of one to six years in prison and up to $3000 in fines. In early May, however, Gov. Haslam signed into law HB 1478 that gets rid of the third offense clause.

For some it was too little too late.

Paul Fields, a father and self-proclaimed Deadhead in his early 50s, found out the hard way how tough Tennessee and federal drug possession laws could be. Fields was caught three times in possession of cannabis. The first time he received probation, and the second he got 100 days in jail. The third time, Fields was caught in possession of 256 cannabis plants and received more than 15 years in prison due to a federal sentencing provision aimed at career criminals. Without that provision, he would have only received two years.

"Under the current guideline, offenders can receive sentences of 15, 22 or even 30 years in federal prison, even if they had never spent a day behind bars previously," said Mary Price, general counsel at Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "We could increase public safety and promote justice better by reserving the most serious sentences for the most serious offenders."

Fields then pled guilty to avoid sentencing for his wife. Now, more than six years after his conviction, Fields spends his time in prison teaching classes, working and leading yoga sessions while writing to his daughter daily.

"My relationship with my daughter is the most important thing in my life," he says. "Still, it's hard being separated… I keep a daily journal for her—every day I write a short little note to her, talking about my day, and what I know about hers. When a notebook is full, I mail it home, and my wife saves them all together to give to her someday. I want her to always know how much I love and miss her, and that I think of her every day."

While Tennessee continues to make progress, however incrementally, there is still a ways to go before legislators finally respond to the growing public support to end prohibition.

Photo credit: Unsplash.

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