A little more than a year ago, Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk announced that his office would no longer prosecute people for possessing half-an-ounce or less of marijuana. It was the direct route to accomplishing what the Metro Council had attempted a few years earlier. In 2016, councilmembers in Nashville — and in Memphis — passed ordinances creating a civil penalty for simple possession of marijuana, giving police officers a formal way to avoid criminal charges. Those laws were later nullified by the state legislature.
But despite the hostility state officials have shown toward relaxing marijuana policy in the slightest — even to legalize medical uses — Funk’s policy remains. He says the leadership of the police department was on board right away, and that it allows officers to focus on more serious issues affecting public safety. The number of days people spent in Nashville jails for marijuana offenses was already decreasing before the policy was enacted. In 2014, there were 5,148 jail days related to such offenses; by 2019, that number was at 120. In 2020, after the DA’s office stopped prosecuting simple possession, there were just six.
But Nashville is an outlier. Across the state, even as legal cannabis compounds like CBD and Delta-8 increase in popularity, people continue to face criminal sanctions for possessing even small amounts of marijuana.
“Most of my days are spent in court defending people with cannabis-related, marijuana-related drug charges,” says attorney Joseph Fuson, a partner at criminal defense and civil litigation firm Freeman & Fuson. “The answer is, it happens all day every day, all over the state. I get calls every day of people getting pulled over.”
Nashville’s relatively progressive stance on possession has only accentuated its status as a blue dot in a sea of deep-red.
“If you’re on the north side of Old Hickory Boulevard, you’re in Davidson County, and they won’t prosecute you for minor marijuana offenses, right?” Fuson says. “And if you’re on the south side of Old Hickory Boulevard, in the other lane, then you will get prosecuted in Williamson County, and they will a lot of times demand probation and fines and drug testing.”
But broader acceptance of marijuana use is spreading fast. In elections last year, voters in several states approved the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Eighteen states plus Washington, D.C., have legalized nonmedical marijuana, and the conservative South is not exempt from the trend. Voters in Mississippi overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana last year too.
In recent years, the Tennessee legislature has considered dozens of bills on the issue, ranging from qualified medical marijuana approval to full-blown recreational legalization. But without fail, the bills have stalled or been voted down outright, even as many have earned the support of some Republican lawmakers.
But for now, Tennessee continues to prosecute and incarcerate people for using a product that’s legal in some form in more states than it is not.