Across the U.S., an overwhelming number of adults (91%) say that marijuana should be legal—either for medical and recreational use (60%) or for medical use only (31%). As more states legalize delta-9 THC rich cannabis, there’s no better time for us to bring the conversation to Tennessee.
Tennessee (and the South, for that matter) has traditionally remained more conservative regarding drug policy. In fact, earlier this year, Rep. Brandon Ogles of Franklin, TN introduced House Joint Resolution 140 in an effort to amend the state constitution, prohibiting future General Assemblies from permitting recreational marijuana use by lumping marijuana legalization with rape, human trafficking, and prostitution.
While it’s hard to believe that this type of archaic and damaging thinking from our lawmakers continues to persist, it’s more important than ever to keep the conversation going. With a focus on educating ourselves and those around us, we can all work to finally end cannabis prohibition.
What is cannabis legalization?
Cannabis legalization is the process of removing all legal prohibitions against the production, distribution, possession, and consumption of cannabis. In place of criminal penalties, the government institutes regulations to commercial cannabis activity.
What are the differences between legalization, decriminalization, and medical cannabis?
These terms can be very confusing, as they are often used interchangeably by different advocates and politicians, but here’s a broad description of what is generally meant by these categories:
Cannabis legalization is the removal of all government-enforced penalties for growing, possessing, manufacturing, and using marijuana substances.
Cannabis decriminalization generally eliminates jail or prison time for the possession of a small amount of marijuana, generally less than an ounce. The sanctions are similar to a minor traffic violation, resulting in fines up to a few hundred dollars. In regions with stricter laws, jail time or prison time may be attached to possessing or selling larger amounts of marijuana.
Medical cannabis legalization allows certain qualified medical professionals to recommend marijuana for a variety of chronic conditions. The specific laws, rigidity of regulations, and practice standards vary from state to state.
For example, Florida voters passed a 2016 constitutional amendment broadly legalizing medical marijuana, but this amendment didn’t initially include smokable forms of cannabis. As of July 2021, physicians who certify patients must adhere to practice standards, conducting in-person full assessments of patients to include family and social history, focusing on substance abuse disorder and mental health disorders, and noting whether patients are pregnant. They must also document the results of any lab work prompting the certification on the patient’s medical records.
Florida also requires physicians to check with a prescription-drug database before ordering marijuana for patients, documenting in the patient’s medical records that they checked the database. Physicians who don’t comply with these requirements could face disciplinary action from their state boards.
Hasn’t cannabis always been illegal?
No—cannabis was legal in the United States until 30 states outlawed it between 1913 and 1931 in a response to an increase of Mexican-American immigration in the West. The term “marijuana” became popular around this time, in an effort to highlight that it was a “Mexican” drug—-playing off of anti-immigrant beliefs at the time. The federal government first criminalized marijuana in the 1930s with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, essentially banning it nationwide despite objections from the American Medical Association related to medical usage.
The laws on cannabis remained this way up until Nixon signed the Controlled Substance Act in 1971, categorizing marijuana as a “Schedule I” controlled substance—a dangerous drug with a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit. Cannabis activity remains a federal crime today, still rooted in racial prejudice– with Black people almost four times as likely as White people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite comparable marijuana usage rates.
Prohibition has been a failed policy. Instead of deterring cannabis consumers, prohibition has caused marijuana use to steadily increase since the 1930s, peaking in the 1970s and 1990s at peaks of the war on drugs.
Learn more about the history of cannabis here.
Why not just reschedule marijuana?
Marijuana is classified as a “Schedule I” narcotic—the same category as heroin and LSD—a more restrictive category than Schedule II drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine. Both Schedule I and Schedule II drugs are considered to have “a high potential for abuse,” but the federal government believes that Schedule II substances have at least some medical value and therefore, give more scrutiny to Schedule I drugs, regardless of their level of danger.
A major hurdle in descheduling marijuana is that due to strict regulations, there have been no large-scale clinical trials on marijuana – yet. On December 9th, 2020, the House passed the Medical Marijuana Research Bill to allow institutions the ability to conduct clinical research on the medicinal benefits, and potential negative impacts, of marijuana. These trials are necessary to prove that a drug has medical value, which will be much harder to conduct until marijuana is declassified or legalized on a federal level—which cannot be done until clinical trials show that marijuana has medical value, a Catch-22.
Is marijuana safe to use?
Critics of legalization have long claimed that marijuana is a “gateway drug” that leads people to try more dangerous drugs, but we’ve known since the 1970s that alcohol and especially nicotine are the true stepping stones to harder drugs. A 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found evidence that there may be a handful of downsides to marijuana consumption, including an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents, a risk of developing schizophrenia and other mental illnesses with prolonged use, respiratory issues (if smoked), and a lower birth weight (if smoked during pregnancy.) The study also revealed the potential benefits of cannabis use for chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, and nausea and vomiting as a result of chemotherapy.
The study also acknowledged that further research is required to learn more about the long-term effects of marijuana use, highlighting the difficulties in conducting this research due to legal issues, tight federal regulations, lack of funding, and limited access to contemporary quality cannabis products.
Unlike alcohol, which contributes to an estimated 95,000 deaths a year and tobacco, which contributes to an estimated 480,000 deaths per year, there are no documented fatalities specifically tied to cannabis use.
How is legalization going in the states that have done it so far?
No major negative stories have come out of legalization just yet. Use in states where marijuana is legal is generally higher, but this difference mainly pre‐dates legalization. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper initially opposed legalization when it was originally on the ballot in 2012 for many reasons, including his worry that more children would use drugs, but he has since stated that “the things I feared six years ago have not come to pass.”
One consistent concern is marijuana edibles. Since the THC is processed differently in the body, edibles take longer to take effect and can cause a different experience for the user than smoking or vaping. There’s a general worry that if too many are consumed, they may result in a negative “high”, causing paranoia or feelings of anxiety. It’s also a fear that edible products may be marketed towards minors or accidentally ingested by children. However, clear, consistent labels and restrictive packaging ensure an accurate adult dosage with packaging that’s not overly appealing and accessible to children. Stricter regulations on a currently unregulated market will create more standards for marijuana companies, resulting in safer packaging, more consistent products, and a greater depth of information for the consumer.
One consistently positive result of marijuana legalization is a significant increase in state tax revenue. Colorado currently collects almost $20 million dollars a month from taxes on recreational marijuana, while California collects more than $50 million per month. As more states legalize marijuana, these numbers may decrease, but the increase in individual state’s tax revenue can provide a significant investment in local communities, with long-term economic and social benefits.
How will legalization affect those currently incarcerated for cannabis offenses?
As legalization sweeps the country, the contrast between those who are incarcerated for cannabis offenses and those profiting off of and enjoying the benefits of legalization is appalling. Some states that have legalized cannabis have also worked to rewrite criminal records for prisoners with previous offenses. For example, in California, it is possible to petition a court to get low-level cannabis offenses eliminated from the record and have high-level offenses downgraded.
Nonprofit organizations such as Last Prisoner Project are dedicated specifically to cannabis criminal justice reform, working to rebuild the lives of those who have suffered from cannabis criminalization. In addition to fighting to release prisoners, providing re-entry resources, and financial support to the families of prisoners, LPP has recently partnered with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to launch the Cannabis Justice Initiative, in an effort to help facilitate clemency, compassionate release, and expungement for individuals with cannabis-related convictions. Learn more about Last Prisoner Project’s programs, as well as how you can become involved here.
We’ll be updating this with more information as it is available, so be sure to bookmark this page for future reference. Have a question that’s not covered in this article? Let us know in the comments!