Drug Laws in Tennessee

overdose rates by stateTennessee is no stranger to the American drug epidemic. According to research conducted in 2013, Tennessee ranked eighth in the nation for fatal drug overdoses. In terms of its population, this statistic means that for every 100,000 Tennessee residents, 16.9 residents will experience a deadly overdose.[1]

The number of fatalities is especially alarming considering that in 1999 the rate was 6.1 overdose deaths for every 100,000 Tennessee inhabitants. A majority of these deaths stemmed from prescription drug abuse. Tennessee is not alone in this respect, since 1999, fatal overdose rates have doubled in a total of 29 states.

According to Friends of Narcanon, a volunteer-run organization dedicated to educating youth about the disastrous effects of drugs, Tennessee is more of a user state than a drug manufacturing state. With the exception of marijuana growing, illegal drug production does not reportedly occur in great volume on state soil, but as eight states border Tennessee, many drugs are transported across its land.[2]

Highest Overdose Rates by State

West Virginia
New Mexico

The following facts provide an insight into the types of drug abuse occurring among Tennessee residents:

  • Marijuana is commonly used in Tennessee.
  • Cocaine users tend to consume this stimulant in the form of crack, the most popular drug of abuse in the state overall.
  • Heroin abuse is limited and mainly afflicts long-term users.
  • Methamphetamine abuse continues to increase throughout the state, and it is believed that this drug will one day eclipse crack as the most popular drug of abuse.
  • Among club drugs, Ecstasy (MDMA), LSD and GHB are the mostly commonly abused.[3]

Treatment Admissions in Tennessee By Drug Type

According to the White House, in 2010, drug rehab treatment centers in Tennessee saw the following numbers of patients for the type of drugs indicated:

  • Over 2,000 individuals, the largest number, sought treatment for opiate abuse (primarily prescription pills).
  • More than 1,250 Tennesseans were treated for marijuana abuse.
  • Nearly 1,000 residents needed rehab for cocaine abuse.
  • Over 250 substance abusers received recovery services for stimulants.
  • Approximately 500 individuals were treated for either tranquilizer, heroin or sedative abuse.

Source: White House

drug treatment in TennesseeAs in any population, there is concern in Tennessee about the patterns of teen drug abuse. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a survey, which included Tennessee teens, for a period ranging from September 2012 through December 2013. The CDC survey found that Tennessee teens abuse heroin and injectable drugs at twice the rate of the national average.[4]

Further, approximately one in five Tennessee teens take prescription pills for recreational purposes. Nineteen percent of Tennessee teens said they had consumed prescription drugs without having a lawful prescription. The CDC report also captured a general trend; over the last five years, Tennessee teens have increased their consumption of hard drugs.

The state of the drug problem in Tennessee makes clear that its residents are at risk not only of consuming drugs, but also passing away as a result of such use. There are numerous ways for the state to address the drug epidemic, and a multipronged legal and public policy approach is indeed necessary.

Although most all addiction specialists would argue that drug addicts need treatment, not incarceration, the legal system plays a vital role in creating a disincentive to manufacture, trade, or abuse drugs.

>>> READ THIS NEXT: Start with Drug Detox


Drug Laws in Tennessee

Criminal law is a complicated area. Whereas civil law focuses on quantifiable transactions, such as contracts, criminal law touches on morality. The main purposes of criminal law, including drug laws, is to deter crime, punish offenders, and rehabilitate criminals in the penal system.[5] Criminal laws can be read as a social manifesto regarding which behaviors are acceptable and which are so repellant to a healthy society that offenders should lose their freedom.

In America, both federal and individual state laws broadcast a message loud and clear – drug crimes are punishable offenses and ones that carry some of the steepest sentences. If being involved with drugs doesn’t cost a person his life, it can cost him his freedom. In Tennessee, drug offenses can also lead to a convicted person being registered on the state’s drug offender database.

The Tennessee Drug Offender Registry

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation maintains a searchable drug offender registry. To learn if a person has been arrested for a drug crime in Tennessee (one subject to the registry statute), users only need the name of the county where the offense occurred and the criminal’s last name. According to Tennessee law, any person who is required to register in this database will remain in the registry for a period of 10 years.

Source: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

Drug Offender Registry Tennessee


Simple Possession

In Tennessee, some cases of drug possession, even for recreational use alone, can amount to a criminal offense. The federal government classifies drugs in terms of schedules (seven in total), and Tennessee has adopted this system with minor adjustments. These schedules are used in Tennessee’s drug laws to organize the severity of the crime associated with possession of any drugs in that category.

For instance, Schedule I drugs carry a high risk of abuse potential and have little or no known medicinal value. Drugs in this category include heroin, Ecstasy, LSD, mescaline, and mushrooms that contain psilocybin. The scheduling of a drug can drive whether the associated offense is treated as a misdemeanor or felony.

Tennessee has a charge called “simple possession,” the lowest drug offense in the state. If a person carrying a scheduled drug does not have enough of the drug to be charged with felony possession, intent to sell, or trafficking, then they may face a charge of simple possession if it is the first offense. This offense is considered a Class A misdemeanor, which can carry up to one year in jail and a fine not to exceed $2,500. If it is a second offense, the person may be charged with a Class E felony charge, which may carry a sentence of one to six years and a fine not to exceed $3,000.[6]


Felony Possession

It is well known that some drug users, even those who have no history of selling drugs, will turn to criminal activity in order to fund their drug use. According to Tennessee drug laws, it is a crime to:

  • Manufacture a controlled drug
  • Deliver a controlled drug
  • Sell a controlled drug
  • Possess a controlled drug with the intent to manufacture, deliver, or sell it[7]

Each of these is a felony offense. The type and the amount of drug in the apprehended person’s possession will impact the charges.

For example, if any of the above elements apply, and the drug is a Schedule I controlled substance, the crime is a Class B felony. This offense can carry an 8-30 year prison sentence and up to $100,000 in fines. If the drugs are methamphetamines, a Schedule II drug, and if the person apprehended has under 0.5 grams, it is a Class B felony.

Over this limit is a Class C felony and beyond. Felony classes for drug offenses in Tennessee range from Class E (the least severe) to Class A (the most severe). A Class A felony can carry a prison sentence of up to 60 years.[8]

Highlights of the 2013 Crime in Tennessee Report

In 2013, Tennessee law enforcement arrested 372,908 individuals. These arrests included 43,827 adults and 2,800 juveniles who were suspected of drug violations. How does the volume of drug-related arrests compare to that of other crimes? The short answer is that adult arrests for drug violations outnumber all others. The next highest arrest ranking for adults is DUI (26,300), followed by simple assault (24,421), and then shoplifting (22,164). The report clearly illuminates that drugs are involved in more law enforcement matters than any other type of crime, and the non-drug-related arrests reported do not disclose that drugs may have been indirectly involved in cases such as murder, robbery and prostitution.

Source: 2013 Crime in Tennessee Report

drug arrests in tennessee


Marijuana Laws

Tennessee follows the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule VI substance, which means it has a low potential for dependency; however, this classification does not stop the possession, growing, or distribution of marijuana from being a criminal offense. Unlike some states, Tennessee has not legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. From a legal standpoint, the way marijuana is used in Tennessee, even if a person is self-medicating for a painful chronic disease, is simply not relevant.[9]

Possession of any amount of marijuana, for first-time or second-time offenders, is a chargeable misdemeanor offense. The charge carries up to one year in jail and/or a fine not to exceed $2,500. A third offense of possession is a felony charge. This crime carries a possible prison sentence between one and six years and/or a fine of up to $5,000.[10]

Cultivating marijuana or possession with intent to sell are also punishable criminal offenses in Tennessee. The penalty is tied to the amount sold or grown, and it is increased if there is a sale to a minor or within a drug-free school zone. The law specifies penalties for amounts ranging from up to and including a half-ounce to 300 pounds or more. To demonstrate the scale of the penalties, while up to and including a half-ounce carries a jail sentence of up to one year in jail, 300 pounds or more can get an offender between 15 and 60 years in prison.[11] For many people, 60 years in prison is the equivalent of a life sentence.

It is also a crime to drive in Tennessee under the influence of marijuana and other intoxicating substances. If pulled over and subsequently drug tested, any amount of marijuana that is revealed to be in the driver’s blood or urine will support a charge of driving under the influence. The penalties for this offense are sensitive to the number of offenses and whether a minor was present in the vehicle at the time of driving under the influence. The law spells out the penalties for the first conviction and for four violations and beyond.

The first offense, for instance, is punishable by up to one year of license suspension and a fine between $350 and $1,500. A fourth conviction and beyond can carry a jail sentence of at least 150 days, a fine between $3,000 and $15,000 and at least five years of license suspension.[12]

DUI in Tennessee

bac legal limit Tennessee

Alcohol is a drug. Although it is legal to consume alcohol, it is unlawful to operate a vehicle at certain levels of blood-alcohol concentration.

While DUI can involve different intoxicating substances, when alcohol is involved, a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) above 0.08 percent is considered over the legal limit. In some cases, however, a person may be charged with a DUI even if he has a BAC lower than 0.08 percent. A person can be arrested on suspicion, even without submitting to a BAC/breathalyzer test. When a person is pulled over on suspicion of DUI in Tennessee, it is important to cooperate with law enforcement. A refusal to submit to a BAC test, even if it turns out the BAC is below the legal limit, is a chargeable offense.[13] Note that the DUI penalties discussed above with respect to marijuana, are the same for alcohol.


Drug Use During Pregnancy

Pregnant woman in a red dressA Tennessee law, enacted in July 2014, treats doing drugs during pregnancy as an assault on the fetus. In the first month of its enactment, a 26-year-old woman was arrested under this law when she and her newborn tested positive for methamphetamines.

During an interrogation, the new mother admitted that she had smoked meth just days before giving birth. The new law allows the charged person to raise certain defenses, such as completing a drug treatment program after giving birth. The state and law enforcement’s hope is that this first arrest, and any to follow, will deter women from doing drugs during pregnancy.[14]

This new law is understandably controversial. A local civil liberties advocacy group objects to the law as impinging on our constitutional rights by singling out women for arrest. In other words, this law is discriminatory because it only impacts the female sex, but supporters believe that this law provides police with a way to detect women who are in need of drug treatment.

Wherever a person’s opinion falls on either side of this debate, it is clear that pregnant women abusing drugs are sorely in need of drug treatment for their own health and for the health of their babies.


The Drug Court Alternative

Criminalizing and penalizing drug abusers is a controversial practice, however prevalent in America. Many opponents argue that the government resources dedicated to the penal process would be better served in drug treatment programs. Further, opponents believe that punishing drug abuse is a vestige of bygone times when drug abuse was associated with moral turpitude.

An additional argument is that criminalizing drug abuse does not have a strong enough deterrent effect because once addiction sets in, the abuser’s power of reason to fear criminal punishment is eclipsed by the physical and psychological cravings for the drugs of abuse.

Drug court programs provide a compromise between criminalizing drug use and treating it. As the National Association of Drug Court Professionals explains, certain drug-addicted individuals may be offered the opportunity to go to drug court rather than be processed through the traditional criminal court system.

Drug court programs vary from state to state. These courts essentially provide eligible drug abusers with an intervention. Unlike family members, drug courts have the force of the law behind them. These courts can offer criminal offenders drug treatment in lieu of a jail sentence.[15]

Although drug court rules, policies and procedures vary from state to state, the following are some general program features that participants can expect:

  • Rehab services for a minimum set period of time
  • Periodic meetings with the drug court judge
  • Random drug testing
  • Recognition of good progress but sanctions when obligations are not fulfilled[16]

Today, there are drug courts in every judicial district in Tennessee. For example, the Rutherford County Recovery Court provides a Drug Court program with features similar to those described above. Members of the court identify persons in the criminal legal system who have violated the law because of their substance abuse. Those persons are then legally ordered to the drug court for review and possible placement in a drug rehab program.

Tennessee believes that its drug courts can help to break cycle of addiction and the criminal behavior associated with it. Drug abusers who commit crimes are prone to recidivism as long as they keep abusing drugs. Drug court programs can help not only individual substance addicts improve their lives, but can also help society at large.


[1]Reports.” (Oct. 7, 2013). (n.d.). Trust for America. Accessed March 1, 2015.
[2]Tennessee Fact Sheet.” (n.d.). Friends of Narcanon. Accessed March 1, 2015.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Wilemon, T. (July 2, 2014). “Tennessee Teens’ Appetite for Hard Drugs Grows.” The Tennessean. Accessed March 1, 2015.
[5]The Purpose of Criminal Laws.” (n.d.). Enlighten Me. Accessed March 1, 2015.
[6]2010 Tennessee Code Title 39 – Criminal Offenses, Chapter 17 – Offenses Against Public Health, Safety and Welfare Part 4 – Drugs 39-17-418 – Simple possession or casual exchange.” (2010). Justicia U.S. Law. Accessed March 1, 2015.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Steiner, M. (n.d.). “Tennessee Marijuana Laws.” Nolo. Accessed March 1, 2015.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Steiner, M. (n.d.). “Driving Under the Influence of Marijuana in Tennessee.” Nolo. Accessed March 1, 2015.
[13]DUI and DWI in Tennessee.” (n.d.). DMV. Accessed March 1, 2015.
[14] Mohney, G. (July 13, 2014). “First Woman Charged on Controversial Law that Criminalizes Drug Use During Pregnancy.” ABC News. Accessed March 1, 2015.
[15]Treatment Courts Work.” (n.d.). National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Accessed March 1, 2015.
[16] Ibid.