Is Weed legal in Tennessee? Will Marijuana ever be legalized?

Is Weed legal in Tennessee? Will Marijuana ever be legalized?

It's no wonder visitors or recent transplants to Tennessee can get lost in the weeds while trying to figure out the state's arcane marijuana laws.

Here in Knoxville, for example, Holistic Connection brags that its storefront offers "the best cannabis Tennessee has to offer."

Just one small problem: Marijuana is not legal in Tennessee. Or is it? There is no short answer to that question, for a couple of reasons.

Part of the confusion can stem from the various terms − cannabis, marijuana and weed − that might seem interchangeable but are not, at least not as Tennessee defines them. Hemp just adds to the confusion.

Marijuana and hemp: What is the difference and which is legal?

Hemp and marijuana belong to the same species, cannabis sativa, and the two plants look somewhat similar.  Cannabis sativa has been cultivated for both its psychoactive properties (marijuana) and as a source of fiber (hemp), the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations says on its website.

The defining difference between hemp and marijuana is their psychoactive component: tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Hemp has 0.3% or less THC, meaning hemp-derived products don’t contain enough THC to create the “high” traditionally associated with marijuana.

Tennessee has legalized the cultivation of hemp and defined hemp as cannabis sativa containing less than 0.3% THC. Cannabis sativa containing greater than 0.3% THC, which is defined by Tennessee as marijuana, is still illegal.

So what is CBD?

While marijuana is not legal, in Tennessee you can buy products containing CBD, or cannabidiol, an active ingredient in cannabis that is derived from the hemp plant but does not cause a high and is not addictive.

CBD, a compound found in cannabis, is termed a “cannabinoid” because it interacts with receptors involved in a variety of functions like appetite, anxiety, depression and pain sensation. Clinical research indicates that CBD is effective at treating epilepsy. Anecdotal evidence suggests it can help with pain and even anxiety, though scientifically the jury is still out on that.

Legal CBD products can only have 0.3% THC. In comparison, marijuana seized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in 2021 averaged more than 15% THC. 

Why are some products containing THC legal in Tennessee?

The Tennessee legislature enacted HB 1164, modifying Tennessee’s industrial hemp law to allow the production of hemp with 0.3% THC or less, in 2017. The law requires hemp growers to be licensed by the Department of Agriculture.

The 2018 U.S. Farm Bill created a loophole that allowed the sale of hemp-derived delta-8 THC products in areas where recreational use of cannabis is prohibited, as well as where medicinal marijuana requires medical authorization.

Though delta-8 is similar to delta-9 — the chemical component of marijuana that accounts for that "high" feeling — they are not identical. Both are psychoactive and connect to the same receptor in the brain to cause intoxication, but delta-8's connection is weaker, creating a lesser effect (hence the nickname "diet weed").

Most delta-8 is not sourced directly from the plant, but instead synthesized from CBD, which occurs more plentifully in hemp. Tennessee recently made its sale illegal to anyone under 21.

What’s the difference between Delta-8 and Delta-9, and what is THCa?

"Delta 9 THC confuses a lot of people, but it’s just the technical term for good old THC," says Nashville dispensary Clara Jane. Hemp-derived delta-9 products are legal in Tennessee as long as they contain less than 0.3% Delta 9 THC by weight. And according to Clara Jane, that means that because most gummies weigh 5 grams or more, it is legal to have up to 15 milligrams of THC in a 5-gram gummy.

THCa flower is another product dispensaries can legally sell in Tennessee. THCa is tetrahydrocannabinolic acid and it is the precursor to THC. As long as it’s still in its acid form, it is not psychoactive. To turn it into psychoactive THC, it must be exposed to high temperatures, heat or light.

So, yes, if you buy legal THCa flower produced from hemp and light it on fire or heat it up in an oven, it converts to (possibly illegal) THC.

What are the penalties for possessing or selling marijuana in Tennessee?

The possession and sale of marijuana are still illegal at the federal level as well as in Tennessee. Tennessee is one of 11 states that hasn't legalized the product, decriminalized it or provided a widely accessible medical marijuana system.

Possession of a half ounce of marijuana or less is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and maximum fine of $2,500. A $250 fine is required for all first time convictions. A subsequent offense brings a $500 mandatory minimum fine.

Selling more than a half ounce of marijuana or cultivating marijuana in the state is a felony. 

Will recreational cannabis ever be legalized in Tennessee?

The path to recreational marijuana, many say, is through first legalizing medical marijuana.

Is Tennessee getting close? Depends on who you ask. The National Law Review published an article in early November, saying that could happen soon − or at least as soon as the federal government removes marijuana from Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommended to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency that marijuana be moved from Schedule I to Schedule III, a designation that recognizes cannabis has medical value.

The next step is for the DEA to determine whether to re-schedule marijuana, which will require a potentially lengthy formal rulemaking process before it can be finalized; the process also can be subject to court challenges. 

The DEA is being pushed to follow the recommendation before the end of next year, which would make Tennessee much more likely to start the slow process of creating a medical cannabis program.

The National Law Review noted the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Commission, which was formed in 2021 to prepare recommendations for “how best to establish an effective, patient-focused medical cannabis program,” made it clear licenses for such a program would not be issued until marijuana is removed from Schedule I.

At the commission's last meeting on Oct. 30, commissioners discussed licensing and which state agency would have primary oversight of the program.

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Region: Tennessee

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