Marijuana Legalization

"LEGAL Colorado Marijuana Grow" by Brett Levin Photography is licensed under CC BY 2.0. / Creative CommonsDec. 23, 2013.

On Oct. 6, President Biden announced his plan to pardon minor federal marijuana convictions and encouraged governors to do so on the state level. Despite this suggestion, Gov. Bill Lee has chosen not to take Tennessee in this direction.

The federal pardon will affect approximately 6,500 people across the country, but not many people are convicted for only simple drug possession, as they also have additional convictions such as drug distribution and gun charges.

“There are a few, if any, people in federal custody for simple possession of marijuana,” Troy Lane, chief of the University of Tennessee Police Department, said. “Likewise, not many people are in state prisons for only marijuana possession. Typically, individuals face prison time for marijuana related charges only when habitual or related to other more serious offenses.”

Biden is also asking the U.S. Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to reclassify marijuana. It is currently identified as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, which is the division that includes heroin and fentanyl.

Drug scheduling originated during the “War on Drugs,” which started in 1971 under the Nixon administration. The controversy surrounding the legalization of marijuana has changed drastically as more and more states are decriminalizing the drug.

Dwight Aarons, a professor of law at UT, explained how he expects public opinion of the drug to change in the future.

“I think this is 2022,” Aarons said. “By 2042, I will be surprised if this is even a controversial issue to deal with people who have simple possession of marijuana, even for recreational use.”

Davidson and Shelby counties have tried to decriminalize marijuana by issuing citations to avoid criminal offenses on marijuana charges. The General Assembly of Tennessee backtracked this action by passing a law saying police departments are not able to use the law to take that action.

“There is actually a law passed a few years back that basically says that the local government, whether it is county or city, any laws they have that conflict with state policy are deemed invalid,” Aarons said. “This says that police cannot legally authorize that.”

This means the police have no legal authorization, but a police chief or police officer can decide how to act in this type of situation. Aarons stated it is the matter of priorities and what the police chief decides is worth their time and what isn’t.

There are a couple of movements across Tennessee that support the legalization of marijuana such as the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Trade Association, Tennessee Cannabis Coalition and Tennessee Growers Coalition.

If Gov. Lee were to follow Biden’s action, he would have to initiate an irreversible executive order which could result in pushback from other Tennessee politicians. In the past, there have been Republican politicians that have tried to block any legalization of recreational marijuana through the state constitution.

The Tennessee General Assembly is made up of the Assembly Senate and the Assembly House of Representatives, which are both Republican dominant. Aarons stated if Gov. Lee was to pass the order, he would break the ties he has with the Republican party.

Aarons doesn’t believe that Gov. Lee would benefit from the decision to follow Biden’s orders.

In comparison to the other issues that Tennessee has, simple marijuana possession falls very low on the list of priorities because it affects a small number of people in federal prison from the state of Tennessee.

As midterm elections approach, Democrats could stay as the majority rule in the House of Representatives, but pre-election polls are currently in favor of the Republican party.

It is unclear what this shift means in the progression of policies for marijuana.

Aarons stated that the controversy is so outdated that even Republicans could vote in favor of progressive policies. Nevertheless, the future state of marijuana legalization is unknown.

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