No Change to Penalties for Pot Arrests

Tennesseans possessing small amounts of marijuana will still be subject to stiff stints in the joint for at least another year.

An effort by Nashville Rep. Harold Love, Jr., to decriminalize the personal use of the psychoactive plant has ended with the measure being rolled to 2016 for future consideration in both chambers.

On Wednesday, House Bill 873 was rolled by the sponsor to the first calendar of the lower chamber’s Finance Subcommittee in 2016. Senate Bill 1211, sponsored by Jeff Yarbro, also a Nashville Democrat, also met a similar fate later the same day in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“We know the Governor’s Task Force on Recidivism is having meetings this summer, and in conversations with the governor’s task force members we thought it might be best to postpone running this bill all the way through and risking getting it voted down,”Love told TNReport Wednesday. He added that next year he hopes they can come back with his bill as part of “the task-force recommendations.”

Originally, Love’s measure had sought to decriminalize the possession and “casual exchange” of up to an ounce of marijuana.  Instead of facing jail-time and a possible criminal record, possession of small amounts of cannabis would be punished as a Class C misdemeanor, requiring a $100 fine.

The measure as it stands now would keep the charge for being caught with small amounts of marijuana as a Class A misdemeanor, but would remove the threat of a felony for a third offense as well as raise the felony threshold to an ounce from a half-ounce. A Class A misdemeanor is punishable by jail-time of up to 11 months and 29 days and a possible fine of $2,500.

Due to strong opposition, the bill was diluted over the course of its House hearings by the Criminal Justice Committee and subcommittee. Instead of decriminalizing pot possession for Tennesseans, the measure became tantamount to more of a possession de-felonization measure.

However, it still faced significant push-back by law-enforcement officials concerned with increased drug trafficking, crime and substance abuse as a result of lowered criminal penalties.

Jimmy Music of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said with the potency of marijuana on the rise, and proliferation of additionally extra-potent THC-oil, the agency was opposed to raising the felony threshold above a half-ounce. “If you have an ounce of oil that’s 90 percent THC, that will get you high for months,” he said.

Music added the agency was opposed to doing away with all felony charges for simple possession because it could hurt the TBI’s ability to flip lower-level users as confidential informants to use in catching “the bigger fish.”

“We go after those small guys at the beginning, and they end up becoming CI’s, usually,” Music said. “And so, that stick of they may have had a little bit then, is what we can then — that felony to hold over their head, to go after the bigger fish.”

But the use by criminal justice entities of steep criminal charges to coerce information out of low-level drug users is not without consequences.

In 2013, a North Dakota college student in his early 20s was turned into a CI by the Southeast Multi-County Agency Drug Task Force in order to avoid a few minor marijuana charges. The student went missing in May 2014, after working as an informant for three months and making several pot purchases from a couple campus dealers at the behest of the task force. He had just a few more purchases to make before he would be free of his own charges.

The student’s body was recovered in June from the Red River near Breckenridge, Minn., and an autopsy revealed he had died of a gunshot wound to the head. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension declared his death a suicide.

Alex Harris can be contacted at