Legal recreational marijuana in Tennessee isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
That’s not the case in neighboring Virginia, where a bill allowing recreational marijuana use will make pot products available to anyone crossing the state line.
The new law could complicate efforts by law enforcement to curb cannabis use in Tennessee.
Local authorities say legal marijuana may also be a menace for other reasons.
“I’m going to deal with the law the way it is (in Tennessee). The Greeneville Police Department will continue to deal with it in a lawful manner,” Greeneville police Chief Tim Ward said this week.
In Tennessee, possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum jail term of one year, and a maximum fine of $2,500. A $250 fine is mandatory for all first-time convictions, with mandatory minimum fines of $500 for subsequent offenses.
“I certainly don’t think at this time the legalization of recreational marijuana in Virginia will affect our laws,” Greene County Sheriff Wesley Holt said Friday.
Virginia formally legalized recreational marijuana last week. State residents can legally possess or grow small amounts of marijuana beginning in July.
“I think we will have people who will travel across the state line to be able to do this freely,” Holt said. “Our laws have not changed and it is still a misdemeanor to possess less than a half-ounce of marijuana or to possess any large amounts over the limit, which is a felony.”
Proposals in Tennessee’s General Assembly to legalize recreational marijuana have met with minimal support. A proposed measure to legalize medical marijuana was dropped from consideration in March by the state Senate Judiciary Committee.
Virginia is now one of 18 states that have legalized cannabis for recreational use. More than 30 others have statutes allowing medical marijuana.
The states that have legalized recreational marijuana have done so despite a long-standing federal law. The Controlled Substances Act puts marijuana in the same category as heroin and LSD, with “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”
When it comes to marijuana, what happens in Virginia should stay in Virginia, Ward said.
“If they drive to Bristol and use it, that’s one thing. If they bring it back, it doesn’t give them a pass on what happens in Tennessee. Marijuana is still illegal,” he said.
In recent years, many police agencies have taken a more laid-back approach to how possession offenses are handled. Depending on the amount of marijuana seized and the particular circumstances, officers may issue a criminal summons to appear in court rather than making an arrest. That’s particularly the case since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to keep jail populations at manageable levels.
Ward spent nine years as a narcotics investigator. He and Holt have strongly formed opinions about making marijuana use legal.
“Do I personally think it’s a good idea? No,” Ward said. “Yes, I believe it is a gateway drug.”
Ward said if a person sells marijuana, they are also likely to sell other types of drugs that could introduce users to more dangerous substances.
Holt shares that view.
“I am not supportive of legalization of marijuana. Marijuana is the gateway to trying harder drugs,” he said. “We certainly don’t need any more bad influences on the lives of our young children today. Drugs continue to destroy families in our county, state and country.”
Ward said assurances that tax dollars generated by cannabis sales would benefit economies and services in states like Colorado have not worked out.
“Almost none of the money would go back into law enforcement,” he said.
“They have a huge amount of homeless people” who moved to the state because of legal marijuana, and issues related to drug use “continue to create a huge strain on their social system,” he said.
Ward said that when money is in play, the criminal element moves in.
“That has led to Mexican cartels coming and strong-arming (legal) marijuana dealers,” Ward said.
The “tentacles” of criminal organizations already in place in Tennessee await more money-making opportunities.
“It’s already happening. We already have a significant cartel involvement in Tennessee in the narcotics trade” supplying methamphetamine and deadly drugs like heroin and fentanyl, Ward said.
Extensive study would be needed “to keep a state-endorsed industry as clean as possible,” Ward said.
“If (recreational marijuana) is going to be contemplated, it really needs to be thought through a lot more than it has been,” he said.
Holt has relatives in Virginia who are not pleased about the new law.
“I was recently in Nelson County visiting. They do not want to see marijuana legalized in their state,” he said. “(In) speaking with them, they have drug problems with meth just like we do in Greene County, so you can see it’s a problem in every state in our country.”