State of Cannabis: Tennessee is Good on Hemp, Bad on Marijuana

TennesseeThis is proving to be a big year for cannabis. As a result, we are ranking the fifty states from worst to best on how they treat cannabis and those who consume it. Each of our State of Cannabis posts will analyze one state and our final post will crown the best state for cannabis. As is always the case, but particularly so with this series, we welcome your comments. We are now reaching the point in our series where the states we are listing are not laughably (or should we say screamingly) bad, nor are they good. They are generally okay in some areas and bad (without being horrible) in others. Today we turn to number 32: Tennessee. This State is home to relatively harsh criminal laws that may be improving soon, a restrictive medical marijuana program, and a thriving hemp industry.

Our previous rankings are as follows: 33. North Dakota; 34. Georgia; 35. Louisiana; 36. Mississippi; 37. Nebraska; 38. Missouri; 39. Florida; 40. Arkansas; 41. Montana; 42. Iowa; 43. Virginia; 44. Wyoming; 45. Texas;  46. Kansas;  47. Alabama;  48. Idaho; 49. Oklahoma;  50. South Dakota.


Criminal Penalties. Tennessee makes it unlawful for a person to “possess or casually exchange” a controlled substance. The state classifies marijuana as a Schedule VI controlled substance and a person caught possessing or distributing less than half an ounce has committed a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one-year in prison and a maximum $2,500 fine. A judge may grant an offender a 30-day credit for jail-time if the offender enrolls in a “drug offender school.” If the violation is a person’s third offense, they face a 1-6 year prison sentence and up to a $3,000 fine.

Possession of larger amounts or the sale of marijuana earns harsher penalties:

  • 1/2 ounce to 10 pounds earns a jail sentence of 1-6 years and a fine up to $5,000.
  • 10-70 pounds earns a jail sentence of 2-12 years and a fine up to $50,000.
  • Regardless of weight, 20-99 marijuana plants earns a jail sentence of 3-15 years and a fine up to $100,000.
  • 70-300 pounds or 100-499 marijuana plants earns a jail sentence of 8-30 years and a fine up to $200,000.
  • Over 300 pounds or more than 500 plants earns a jail sentence of 15-60 years and a fine up to $500,000.

Medical Marijuana. In 2015, Tennessee passed Senate Bill 280, legalizing high-CBD oil for medical patients. Like many other states with similar legislation, the bill did not provide patients with a legal means to obtaining the CBD oil. The Marijuana Policy Project reports that several bills aimed at expanding Tennessee’s medical marijuana program have failed in the legislature. Advocacy groups like the Tennessee Cannabis Coalition continue to push for change, but they face a difficult battle considering the State legislature’s inaction in expanding medical marijuana.

Industrial Hemp. In April 2014, the Tennessee legislature enacted Public Chapter 916, which removed industrial hemp from the criminal code’s definition of marijuana. The law allows farmers to obtain licenses from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) to cultivate industrial hemp. The act defines “industrial hemp” as “the plants and plant parts of the genera cannabis that do not contain a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration more than three tenths of one percent (0.3%) on a dry mass basis, grown from seed certified by a certifying agency.”

The TDA has promulgated rules related to industrial hemp. Applicants may be individuals, institutions of higher education, or business entities. All applicants must reside in Tennessee with all workers and tangible assets located in-state. Applicants must fill out this form and submit it to the TDA, which includes information on the applicant, the type of hemp to be cultivated, and the location (with GPS coordinates) of the farm. The  Tennessee Legislature recently expanded the state’s hemp program by enacting House Bill 2032 to establish legal hemp processing facilities and to allow for distribution of industrial hemp in Tennessee. Hemp cultivators, processors and distributers must also obtain permits to operate in Tennessee’s hemp industry.

In, 2015 ABC affiliate WATE 6 reported that Tennessee’s farmers were having mixed results growing hemp. Local newspaper, Times Free Press, reports that many farmers who applied for permits in 2015 are not renewing their applications as they have found that growing hemp is not profitable. The recent law changes to allow for hemp processing and distribution may lead to Tennessee developing a viable hemp industry

Bottomline. Tennessee is a fairly typical southern state when it comes to criminal penalties and medical marijuana. However, its industrial hemp program makes it unique among its neighboring states. The Tennessee hemp program has yet to flourish, but by reforming its hemp laws, the  Legislature appears willing to make changes to allow the hemp program to work. Despite its progress on hemp, however, Tennessee still lags behind when it comes to marijuana penalties and medical marijuana. And for those reasons, it ranks in the lower half of our 50-state cannabis list.