Chattanooga councilwoman wants state to rethink penalties for simple marijuana possession

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod speaks during a Chattanooga City Council meeting on June 7.

Chattanooga City Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, of Eastdale, is urging the governor to reconsider state penalties for simple possession of marijuana of up to half an ounce and is asking her colleagues to lend their support.

"President (Joe) Biden has stated that sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit," states a proposed letter drafted to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.

"Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing and educational opportunities, and while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionate rates."




The council's agenda calls for members to consider sending the letter during their regular meeting Tuesday. The board holds its weekly meeting at 6 p.m. every Tuesday in the first floor chambers at 1000 Lindsay St.

In October, Biden announced pardons for thousands of people convicted of simple possession of marijuana under federal law and asked governors to do the same for state offenses. At the time, The Associated Press reported, no one was in federal prison solely for simple possession, but the White House noted the move could help people overcome obstacles in renting a home or finding a job.

Additionally, the president said in a statement he would ask U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law, which currently classifies the drug under Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act.

That's a classification reserved for the most dangerous substances, the president's statement said, and places it in the same category as heroin and LSD but above fentanyl and methamphetamine -- two drugs the White House said are driving the nation's overdose epidemic.

As federal and state regulations change, Biden's statement said, limitations on trafficking, marketing and underage sales should remain, language that is echoed in Coonrod's proposed letter to Lee.

"Please consider the action taken by President Biden in this state and continue to regulate important limitations on trafficking, marketing and underage sales of THC and CBD consumption, which are currently allowed based on certain percentages under Tennessee law," the letter says.

Possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor in Tennessee punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum fine of $2,500.

The letter also points out that Tennessee recently approved a slight expansion of its medical marijuana rules, increasing in May 2021 the medical conditions under which people can possess low-THC cannabis oil.

Previously, state law only allowed those diagnosed with intractable seizures or epilepsy to possess a small amount of medical cannabis oil, the letter states. Now, people with Alzheimer's disease, late-stage cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson's disease, sickle cell disease and other specific conditions can possess CBD oil containing less than 0.9% THC.

"The City Council would request your guidance and help on developing uniform legal requirements for possession, sales and taxation on all THC, CBD and small amounts of marijuana in this state which are uniform with all contiguous states to Tennessee," the letter states.

Councilwoman Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, is co-sponsoring the resolution and said by phone Monday that Coonrod has a track record of bringing thought-provoking and forward-thinking items to the council.

"I think it's appropriate to take an intentional look at the way that the state of Tennessee handles marijuana crimes and marijuana sentencing," Hill said. "We've seen nationwide that drug sentencing laws have had unintended consequences on our African American citizens, and nationally, it is an important conversation and it makes a lot of sense for Tennessee to consider it carefully."

Coonrod was not immediately available for comment on Monday.

Assistant Police Chief Jerri Sutton said in an email that the Chattanooga Police Department does not specifically track the frequency with which the officers enforce penalties for simple marijuana possession.

"The department hasn't taken a stance on the matter," she said. "Officers have discretion for enforcement of the law. Circumstances often influence an officer's discretion."

Contact David Floyd at or 423-757-6249.