Possession of a Controlled Substance in Tennessee

The basics of Tennessee's drug possession laws and penalties.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated September 14, 2023

Illegal drug possession can mean jail time and mandatory fines in Tennessee. Read on to learn how Tennessee classifies and penalizes drug possession offenses.

How Tennessee Classifies Controlled Substances

Tennessee divides controlled substances into seven schedules—Schedules I to VII. Schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous and highly addictive, while Schedule V drugs are the least dangerous and the least addictive. Schedules VI and VII are reserved for specific drugs—marijuana and butyl nitrite. Below are examples of drugs placed into each schedule.

Schedule I includes drugs such as heroin, MDMA, LSD, mescaline, GHB, and psilocybin.

Schedule II includes drugs such as raw opium, codeine, oxycodone, morphine, cocaine, fentanyl, carfentanil, and meth.

Schedule III includes drugs such as pentobarbital, ketamine, anabolic steroids, and buprenorphine.

Schedule IV includes drugs such as barbital, diazepam (Valium), flunitrazepam (Rohypnol), and lorazepam (Ativan).

Schedule V includes therapeutic medicines containing low amounts of codeine or other narcotics combined with non-narcotic active ingredients.

Schedule VI includes marijuana, THC concentrates, and synthetic marijuana.

Schedule VII includes only one drug—butyl nitrite.

(Tenn. Code §§ 39-17-406, -408, -410, -412, -414, -415, -416 (2023).)

What Are the Penalties for Illegal Drug Possession in Tennessee?

Most drug possession offenses are class A misdemeanors in Tennessee. This penalty applies to knowing possession or casual exchange of an illegal controlled substance, as well as possession of drug paraphernalia.

Class A misdemeanors carry a maximum jail sentence of 11 months and 29 days and a maximum fine of $2,500. Tennessee imposes the following mandatory minimum fines for drug possession offenses.

  • The minimum fines for misdemeanor drug possession (not marijuana) are $750 for a first conviction, $850 for a second conviction, and $1,000 for third and subsequent convictions.
  • The minimum fines for marijuana possession convictions are $250 for a first conviction, $500 for a second conviction, and $1,000 for third and subsequent convictions.
  • The minimum fines for possession of drug paraphernalia are $150 for a first conviction and $250 for all subsequent convictions.

(Tenn. Code §§ 39-17-418, 39-17-428 (2023).)

Enhanced Penalties for Drug Possession Crimes in Tennessee

Tennessee law imposes enhanced penalties for drug possession offenses in the following cases.

Meth. Possession of any amount of meth carries a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 30 days

Giving drugs to a minor. Misdemeanor drug possession or "casual exchange" becomes a felony sale offense (with much harsher penalties) in cases where an adult gives drugs to a minor and there's at least a two-year age difference.

Heroin; third offense. The penalty for possession of heroin becomes a class E felony when a person has two or more prior possession convictions for any drug.

(Tenn. Code § 39-17-418 (2023).)

Will First-Time Offenders for Drug Possession Get Jail Time in Tennessee?

It depends. Tennessee offers a number of sentencing alternatives that may avoid jail time and, sometimes, a conviction. First-time offenders generally qualify, but these alternatives hinge on compliance with the court or prosecutor's terms. And, for the most part, these alternatives are one-time deals. For instance, a defendant gets one shot at either pretrial or judicial diversion, but not both.

Pretrial Diversion

A prosecutor may agree to suspend prosecution of charges in a drug possession case, as long as the defendant has never been in diversion before and has no prior convictions for a felony or class A or B misdemeanor.

Pretrial diversion requires the defendant to sign a contract with the prosecutor. In this contract, the prosecutor agrees to not pursue the charges so long as the defendant remains law-abiding, participates in treatment or counseling, and complies with all other terms in the agreement. Upon successful completion of diversion, the court will dismiss the case.

(Tenn. Code § 40-15-105 (2023).)

Judicial Diversion

Defendants who've never been granted diversion (of any kind) might qualify for judicial diversion, as long as they don't have a record of serving time for a felony or a class A misdemeanor. In judicial diversion, the judge usually takes the defendant's guilty plea but holds off on entering a judgment of guilt. The judge will instead place the defendant on probation. If the defendant abides by the probation terms, the court will dismiss the case.

(Tenn. Code § 40-35-313 (2023).)

Recovery Courts

Tennessee also has a number of "recovery courts," including adult drug courts. Recovery court does not avoid a conviction, but it offers intensive supervision and support to offenders suffering from addiction. Drug courts are run by a team of professionals, including judges, attorneys, probation officers, and treatment providers, who work together to aid in the defendant's recovery. A defendant will face both sanctions and incentives as part of the program.

Possible Defenses to Drug Possession Charges in Tennessee

Defendants facing controlled substance charges have several defense strategies available to them.

Actual innocence. Defendants charged with a drug-related crime have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants, such as "Someone else committed this crime," or "the alleged conduct did not occur."

Lack of knowledge. Defendants can try to show the jury that they did not have knowledge of the controlled substance being in their possession. For example, if a hitchhiker gets a ride from a passing car and the police locate a bag of heroin under the hitchhiker's seat, the defense will argue the defendant had no knowledge of the bag hidden under their seat.

Unlawful search and seizure. A common defense in drug possession cases includes asking the court to exclude evidence of the drugs at trial based on an unlawful search or seizure by police. Without evidence of the drugs, a prosecutor's case might fall apart, resulting in a reduction of charges or a dismissal altogether. Defense teams do this by scrutinizing and calling out faulty or suspect police methods used in gathering or handling the evidence.

Overdose prevention and immunity. Tennessee offers immunity from prosecution for drug possession charges to Good Samaritans who call 911 for someone experiencing an overdose. The law also extends immunity one time to the person experiencing the overdose. (Tenn. Code § 63-1-156 (2023).)

Talk to a Lawyer

If you've been charged with a drug-related offense in Tennessee, contact a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. An experienced lawyer will discuss the circumstances unique to your situation, formulate possible defenses, and protect your constitutional rights.

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