Tennessee Lawmakers want Statewide Marijuana Legalization Vote

Tennessee legislators are looking to put a cannabis question on the ballot, but advocates still aren’t sure if the vote will be a “yes.
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Two Tennessee state lawmakers this week proposed legislation that would put ballot questions regarding the legalization of marijuana before voters in this year’s general election. The legislation was introduced by a bipartisan duo of state legislators, Democratic Senator Sara Kyle and Representative Bruce Griffey, a conservative Republican.

Attempts to legalize medical cannabis in Tennessee have seen some success in legislative committees only for proposed legislation fail to come to a vote by the full House of Representatives. But some prosecutors have adopted a more lenient stance to cannabis, including Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk, who has instituted a policy to decline to file charges in possession cases involving a half-ounce of cannabis or less. Griffey believes that it is time to give statewide marijuana legalization another look.

“We’ve been wrestling around with this for years and years now,” Griffey told the Tennessee Lookout. “A bunch of jurisdictions have taken a step to legalize it. There’s certainly some valid arguments, is marijuana any worse than alcohol in certain situations?” 

The legislation from Griffey and Kyle, Senate Bill 1973/House Bill 1634, was introduced in the state Senate on Thursday. Under the bill, county election commissions would be directed to include three non-binding questions on this year’s general election ballot. The bill also requires the Tennessee secretary of state to compile the results from the county elections, characterized as a “public policy opinion poll” in the summary of the legislation, and forward them to the members of the state legislature.

Vote Would Not Legalize Pot Outright

The vote, however, would not legalize cannabis by itself. Under the Tennessee state Constitution, ballot measures are not binding and do not by themselves create new legislation. But they can serve as a way to gauge the views of voters on controversial issues, potentially giving lawmakers guidance to craft new laws.

The bill from Kyle and Griffey would pose the following three questions to Tennessee voters on the November 2022 general election ballot:

  1. Should the state of Tennessee legalize medical marijuana?
  2. Should the state decriminalize the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana?
  3. Should the state legalize and regulate the commercial sales of recreational marijuana?

Kyle, who has supported efforts to legalize medical cannabis in Tennessee, said that she welcomes the chance to measure the “community support” for the ballot questions.

“I would vote yes on every one of these,” she said.

Kyle has said that her support for cannabis reform stems from the belief that people should be able to use medical cannabis, adding that many of the constituents of her district in Memphis have sickle cell disease. The Democratic senator also noted that convictions for minor cannabis offenses can have long lasting consequences, including difficulties obtaining employment and educational or social benefits. 

“Let’s remove that barrier,” Kyle said. “We’re talking about less than an ounce. That’s pretty much personal use.”

Griffey was unable to convince a Republican senator to sponsor the legislation in the upper house of the Tennessee General Assembly, leading to the bipartisan pairing with Kyle. Griffey agrees that lawmakers should get input from the electorate to guide legalization.

“To me there’s no downside to it, very minimal cost,” he said Wednesday. “Let the Tennessee voters at least express their opinion in an unbiased manner so all of us as legislators have a sense of what the voters would like us to do.” 

Public opinion polls have shown that 70 percent to 80 percent of Tennessee voters support decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing the medicinal use of cannabis, but Kyle is not sure if lawmakers agree.

“On those questions, I think you’ll get a high yes,” she said. “But I don’t know if the Legislature’s ready.”

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