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New Law Loosens Drug Possession Penalties

New law makes half-ounce or less of pot a misdemeanor regardless of previous possession charges.

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A person convicted six times of driving under the influence will now face a Class C felony in Tennessee. Meanwhile, those possessing a half-ounce or less of marijuana will be charged with a misdemeanor regardless of the number of previous possession charges on their record.

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Gov. Bill Haslam signed House Bill 1478, sponsored by Rep. William Lamberth (R-Cottontown), into law last week. The new law, which will go into effect July 1st, creates a three- to-15-year prison sentence and fines up to $10,000 for drunk drivers and eases repercussions for simple possession of any drug, including cocaine and heroin. It may signal a perception shift regarding drug sentencing in the state.

"In 2014, we had 1,904 people arrested [in Tennessee] on small amounts of marijuana possession," said Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis), a co-sponsor of the bill. "That's a lot of loss of jobs and opportunities. If you had one blunt or one gram of weed over a half-ounce, you could face the same sentence as someone would for killing someone."

Nearly half of the country has legalized medicinal marijuana, and four states have legalized weed for recreational use. Tennessee passed a law in 2014 that allowed seizure patients access to cannabis oil, but they must travel across state lines to obtain it. Co-sponsors of HB 1478 hope the legislation will bolster dialogue that furthers medicinal access and saves taxpayer money by reducing incarceration.

"We discovered the state was spending $1.7 million per year for [incarcerating people for] a half-ounce or less of marijuana," said Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville), who also co-sponsored the bill. "I think this bill will change the perception of how we deal with drug sentencing, treatment, and addiction in Tennessee. I'm not suggesting in any way that this is the gateway to legalizing marijuana, but I do think it helps with sentencing."

Though people of all races smoke pot, arrests tend to disproportionately affect African Americans. Eighty-three percent of Shelby County's drug possession arrests in 2010 were of African Americans, the American Civil Liberties Union found. More so, states spent more than $3.6 billion in marijuana possession enforcement.

Using marijuana can also result in a violation of probation or parole in Tennessee. Some judges will revoke or raise a person's bail if they screen positive for marijuana, says Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City. This contributes, Spickler says, to about 35 percent of state prison admissions being the result of parole violations.

"This law is a step in the right direction, but we need to take a comprehensive look at drug laws and enforcement in Tennessee," Spickler says.

If Tennessee were to restructure marijuana laws, Parkinson said there would be a socioeconomic benefit for the state.

"My goal next year is to remove the automatic intent to distribute for an ounce of marijuana or less out of the law," Parkinson said. "I would like to legalize both medicinal and recreational marijuana and base it on Tennessee growers. We're an agricultural state. I would like to see our state capitalize on an industry that can help people medicinally. We should [also] legalize it and put that money toward education."

Like drug courts as an alternative to jail cells, Love said medicinal marijuana could potentially become a pain management option to combat prescription drug addiction.

"I'm not on the side that says legalize and tax it," Love said. "I'm on the side that says, 'How can we help people who are in pain be relieved without an addictive drug in their system?' But the reason it's important is students would lose their financial aid, and people might not be able to apply for jobs — all because they had a felony on their record for a half-ounce or less. 'Or less' is half of a joint. 'Or less' is a quarter. 'Or less' could be residue."


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