Tennessee state legislators proposed bills for the decriminalization of marijuana in both the Tennessee Senate and the Tennessee House of Representatives on Jan. 23.

The first bill, House Bill 256, will decriminalize the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana in Tennessee, while the second bill, HB 260, declares a medical marijuana cardholder from another state cannot be punished for the possession, or distribution to another cardholder, of up to one-half ounces of marijuana. 

Both bills were sponsored by both Sen. Sarah Kyle (D—Memphis) and Congresswoman Gloria Johnson (D—Knoxville).

Michael Sances, a political science professor at the University of Memphis, said the decriminalization of marijuana means the penalty for possession is the same as a traffic violation.

“You don’t go to jail for running a stoplight or speeding,” Sances said. “You get a ticket, as opposed to murder or a capital crime, so the idea for decriminalization is to make possession something you would not have to go to jail for.”

While marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, states maintain the ability to enforce their own regulations. Many states have legalized the use of marijuana in some way, but the federal government still retains the authority to implement their own policies if they so choose.

Steve Mulroy, a law professor at the UofM, said decriminalization itself does not legally affect the federal law, but it can in other ways.

“Decriminalization on the state level does not legally affect the federal law, but it can effect the dynamics of the enforcement of the federal law,” Mulroy said. “The more a state tolerates the use of marijuana through either medical marijuana, decriminalization or outright legalization, the more pressure there will be for federal law enforcement to stay out of it.”

Eric Groenendyk, another political science professor at the UofM, said decriminalization will lead to fewer people being incarcerated for possession of marijuana, saving state revenue and allowing authorities to focus on more major offenses.

“The other hope is that by keeping people out of jail for minor offenses, there will be fewer disruptions in people’s lives that put strains on families, finances and employment,” Groenendyk said. “Thus, people will hopefully be able to lead productive lives.”

Decriminalization, as well as the legalization of marijuana, is on the rise in the United States. As of today, 35 states in the U.S. have either legalized or decriminalized the use of marijuana. 

While Memphis and Nashville have attempted to decriminalize marijuana in the past, they were denied by former Gov. Bill Haslam. With Gov. Bill Lee replacing Haslam, the situation may change for Tennessee.

Grayson Kirk, a student at the UofM, said he thinksmarijuana should be decriminalized in the state of Tennessee.

“I believe marijuana should be decriminalized because more than half of prisons are being filled because people are being arrested for being caught smoking only a little,” Kirk said. “If small amounts of weed are decriminalized then there would be less unnecessary arrests.

Both bills have currently been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee assigned to the Criminal Justice Subcommittee in the House.

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