Drug Laws In Tennessee


If you have been charged with a drug possession offense, please remember to talk to your attorney about alcohol and drug rehabilitation as an alternative to incarceration. The state of Tennessee can be relentless when it comes to drug offenses, and the penalties for drug offenses are often tough; however, in many situations, alternative drug rehab at Discovery Place can count as time served or even reduce overall penalties for drug charges and DUI offenses.

There are five types of drug-related charges in the state of Tennessee.

  • Simple possession, casual exchange
  • Possession with intent
  • Sale of a controlled substance
  • Drug trafficking and conspiracy
  • Drug manufacturing

A variety of elements determine the degree of punishment one may face for a drug offense. Factors include criminal history, the applicable drug schedule classification, and the quantity of the drug involved in the given incident(s).

Simple Possession, Casual Exchange in Tennessee

Simple possession or casual exchange is the lowest drug offense there is in Tennessee. If you did not have enough of a controlled substance on you to be charged with a felony possession, trafficking, or sale charge, then simple possession is another option for the prosecution.

Simple possession has the ring of a relatively minor offense, and effectively, it is usually somewhat of a minor offense in Tennessee. However, to those who have never experienced criminal charges, possession can be a scary, serious matter. Most of us do not anticipate having a criminal record in our futures, so are thus frightened at what types of records and penalties this charge could entail.

Those charged with simple possession or casual exchange will face Class A misdemeanor penalties, which can mean serving up to one year in jail and facing fines of up to $2,500.

Penalty for simple possession or casual exchange.Those charged with a second offense or greater will face Class E felony charges, which carry a potential sentence of one to six years and fines of up to $3,000.

In addition to jail or fines, one may be required to take a drug education class at the discretion of the presiding judge.

Some fail to realize that one can be charged with possession of a controlled substance even if not caught with the drugs on their person. If law enforcement finds a controlled substance on the property of a registered owner (e.g., a house or a vehicle), then that person can in fact be charged with drug possession.

Possession with Intent in Tennessee

Tennessee has determined that possession of certain amounts of drugs indicate something more than just personal use. If a law enforcement officer determines that the amount of drugs one possesses is for more than recreational use (a strong sign that one intends to sell the narcotics) then one can cop a charge of possession with intent (known in many states as intent to distribute). This does not mean the offender is presumed guilty of a felony drug crime; the State of Tennessee must still prove possession of the drugs with intent to sell or distribute beyond a reasonable doubt.

Possession with intent is a serious charge with serious penalties. The quantity in one’s possession is not the only element that distinguishes possession from intent to distribute. Possession of items like scales used to weigh drug product in bulk, bags or other containers used to package and resell drugs, large quantities of unclaimed cash, etc. can contribute to the elevated charge of intent to distribute.

Intent to distribute is a felony offense in Tennessee. A felony conviction can carry highly destructive life consequences, including loss of voting and firearm privileges, large fines, exclusion from certain categories of employment, probation, and prison time.

Sale of a Controlled Substance in Tennessee

When sale of a controlled substance is charged, a law enforcement officer has typically directly observed a drug sale or the sale involved an undercover officer. Sale of a controlled substance in Tennessee is a felony; any sale, regardless of the amount, is classified as a felony offense in Tennessee. The sentence is generally determined by the type and amount of drug(s) involved, location of the sale, and the number of prior felonies on the record of the person being charged.

Drug Trafficking and Conspiracy in Tennessee

Drug trafficking charges in the state of Tennessee result in life-altering consequences for those facing conviction. People suspected of engaging in the production, distribution, transportation, or sale of illegal substances may face this type of charge.

There is a set of mandatory-minimum penalties for people convicted of drug trafficking as crafted by the federal government. As such, judges/courts are not permitted to hand down sentences less than those established by the feds. If convicted, drug trafficking offenders face hefty fines along with lengthy prison and probation time.

Aggravating factors may increase the potential for harsh sentences; for example, those arrested within a certain radius of a children’s playground or school will probably face stiffer penalties. Evidence of narcotics transportation across state lines may result in federal trafficking charges. The type of drug involved also influences sentences (i.e. marijuana, a Schedule VI drug in Tennessee, is typically viewed less stringently than Schedule I drugs like heroin or methamphetamine).

In practice, conspiracy charges often serve as a catch-all to enhance charges and increase legal penalties. With conspiracy charges, the government can consolidate multiple individual cases into a single indictment, thereby reducing the workload on the government while increasing the challenge to the defense for each defendant. Also, the government gains a tactical and evidentiary advantage at trial by including multiple defendants in a single case.

Drug Manufacturing

Certain types of drugs cannot be cultivated naturally and require synthetic or chemical processes in their production. The most notorious manufactured drug in the state of Tennessee is methamphetamine. Production of methamphetamine will almost certainly result in a drug manufacturing charge — and Tennessee drug crime penalties are usually the harshest for meth-related offenses.

Other types of drugs can be produced naturally but require additional processes to render usable product. Drugs like cocaine (produced from the coca plant) and heroin (poppy plant) fall into this category. Growing marijuana — one of the biggest cash crops (if not the biggest) in several states, including Tennessee — can also result in manufacturing charges.

The minimum prison sentence for a drug manufacturing charge is one year, regardless of whether the narcotics were manufactured for distribute or intended for personal consumption. Additional penalties may include hefty fines, long-term probation, community service, suspension of driving privileges, and more.

Marijuana Laws, Growing Operations in Tennessee

Any amount greater than ½ an ounce of marijuana can be charged as a felony in Tennessee. Here’s a quick summary of the state’s marijuana laws:

  • Up to ½ ounce: Class A misdemeanor (Simple possession)
  • ½ Ounce to 10 lbs: Class E Felony, 1 to 6 years (Sale or possession with intent)
  • 10 lbs to 70 lbs: Class D Felony, 2 to 12 years (Sale or possession with intent)
  • 70 lbs to 300 lbs: Class C Felony, 3 to 15 years (Sale or possession with intent)
  • 300+ lbs: Class B Felony, 8 to 30 years (Sale or possession with intent)

Whether one is accused of taking part in large-scale marijuana grow operations or accused of simply possessing some of the operational components (i.e., hydroponic equipment, grow lights, seeds, fertilizer, etc.), producing pot is treated harshly under both state and federal law. Federal penalties for manufacturing marijuana — based largely on the number of plants involved — are particularly severe. Unfortunately, the law allows the government to count mere parts of plants as entire plants. This means the number of plants the government claims are involved is often significantly larger than the actual number of marijuana plants being grown.

As in other types of drug manufacturing activity, Tennessee law criminalizes the possession of precursors of pot and individual components of a marijuana manufacturing operation. For example, someone who is growing marijuana in their home (even if it is solely for personal or medicinal use) and is in possession of unusable seeds, old dead stalks, etc. could nevertheless be charged with manufacturing or attempted manufacturing, and each stalk could be counted as a separate marijuana plant.

Controlled Substance Schedules

Federal Controlled Substance Schedules

Drugs (controlled substances) are classified according to their potential for abuse, potential for consequences, and degree of legitimate medical use. At the federal level, controlled substances fit into one of five classifications: Schedule I, Schedule II, Schedule III, Schedule IV, and Schedule V.

Schedule I substances possess a high potential for abuse with no medical value. Each subsequent schedule classification has less potential for abuse, so schedule I narcotics are more likely to cause dependence than schedule II narcotics, and so on.

Many prescription drugs fall into one of the five schedule classifications. If you are found with medication that is a controlled substance without a prescription bottle with your name on it, you can be charged with possession of a controlled substance. “Doctor shopping” — the practice of seeing multiple doctors for prescriptions of the same controlled substances — is also prohibited under Tennessee law.

Possession of a controlled substance can result in various charges including prescription fraud, drug possession, or possession with intent.

Drug Schedules in Tennessee

Although the federal government classifies controlled substances into their specific schedules, Tennessee and many other states adopt them in general but often make adjustments to the scheduling of drugs.

Here’s how controlled substances are classified in the state of Tennessee:

Schedule I drugs include substances that are considered to be the most dangerous, those having have a higher risk of addiction or dependency than the other schedules, and those which serve no legitimate medical purpose. Drugs included under Schedule I include heroin and psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and peyote/mescaline. (The feds still classify marijuana and other THC-based substances under Schedule I, while Tennessee and many other states have a more modern or progressive view of pot; see Schedule VI below.)

Schedule II substances have a relatively high risk of abuse but may also serve legitimate medical purposes. Schedule II drugs in Tennessee include opiates/opioids (aka, narcotics), cocaine, methadone, methamphetamines, and amphetamines.

Schedule III drugs are generally considered less dangerous than Schedule II drugs, but still have a moderate risk of abuse. Schedule III substances in Tennessee include anabolic steroids, testosterone, ketamine, and some depressants.

Schedule IV drugs have a slight risk of dependency and have numerous legitimate medical applications. Some of the Schedule IV drugs in Tennessee are Xanax® (alprazolam), Valium® (diazepam), Klonopin® (clonazepam), and other benzodiazepines/ sedatives.

Schedule V substances have a very low risk of dependency and include things like Tylenol with Codeine®.

Schedule VI includes marijuana, which is has a low risk of physical dependency in contrast with many other drugs.

Schedule VII includes only butyl nitrate, which has been known by many names including poppers, locker room rush, etc.

Range of Penalties for Drug-Related Offenses

In an effort to combat the chronic drug problem in the state, law enforcement in Tennessee is rather heavy handed when it comes to seeking and apprehending drug dealers and even recreational users.

If you have been arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance in Tennessee, you may face penalties including:

  • Suspension of driver’s license
  • Forfeiture of property
  • Jail and/or prison time
  • Fines
  • Community service
  • Probation

Legal Punishment in Tennessee by Drug Schedule

Schedule I, Schedule II Substances

Purchase or possess, first offense: Imprisonment for not less than two nor more than fifteen years

Purchase or possess, second offense: Imprisonment for not less than five nor more than thirty years

Sell or intent to distribute, first offense: Imprisonment for not less than five nor more than thirty years

Sell or intent to distribute, second offense: Imprisonment for not less than ten nor more than forty years OR life imprisonment

Schedule III, Schedule IV, Schedule V Substances

Purchase or possess, first offense: Imprisonment for not less than one nor more than five years

Purchase or possess, second offense: Imprisonment for not less than one nor more than ten years

Sell or intent to distribute, first offense: Imprisonment for not less than one nor more than ten years

Possession of Drug Paraphernalia in Tennessee

Many entirely legal items often serve as a basis for drug paraphernalia charges. For example, pipes are perfectly legal to use for smoking tobacco – but not for smoking illegal substances. Possession of a pipe in one situation may be legal, while under different circumstances may be a crime in Tennessee. Tennessee law sets out certain factors used to determine whether an object is drug paraphernalia:

  • Statements by the owner or anyone in control of the object concerning its use
  • Prior convictions, if any, of the owner or of anyone in control of the object for violation of any state or federal law relating to controlled substances or controlled substance analogues
  • The existence of any residue of controlled substances on the object
  • Instructions, oral or written, provided with the object concerning its use
  • Descriptive materials accompanying the object that explain or depict its use
  • The manner in which the object is displayed for sale (For example, bongs sold in tobacco shops are often clearly marked as being for use with tobacco/ hookah)
  • The existence and scope of legitimate uses for the object in the locale or community
  • Expert testimony concerning its use

Possession of drug paraphernalia in Tennessee is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to 11 months, 29 days in jail. A drug paraphernalia conviction typically have lasting adverse effects on a person’s family and career.

Resources: Drug Possession Laws in Tennessee

Drug Possession – Tennessee Criminal Defense – Laws & Penalties

Drug Trafficking, Conspiracy – Law Office of Kimberly Hodde

Marijuana Growing Operations – Law Office of Kimberly Hodde

Tennessee Drug Trafficking Defense Attorneys

Tennessee Drug Possession Laws, Bonnaroo 2013

Federal Drug Crimes – Nashville Federal Drug Charge Lawyer

Firearm Possession in Connection with Drug Trafficking – Law Office of Kimberly Hodde

Possession of Drug Paraphernalia

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