East Tennessee jails are crowded with inmates arrested on drug crimes, but according to Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen -- that doesn't apply to people arrested on a first offense for marijuana.
"I think there are a lot of misconceptions about marijuana in our community," said Allen.
The veteran prosecutor opposes legalization of the drug. She says marijuana is an ongoing problem in our community. But General Allen also points to statistics showing marijuana crimes aren't keeping people locked up across the state.
"...not true at the county level, not true at the state level," she said.
For instance, the Tennessee Department of Corrections notes the total prison population number across the state is close to 30,000 inmates.
"Of those 30,000 individuals, 15,000 of those were in there for crimes against person, murder, rape, assault... a crime where they had laid hands on another human being," explained General Allen.
Looking at the other half of prisoners, she noted slightly less than 7,000 of the entire inmate population is in on a drug crime. Of those 7,000 -- only a small minority of offenders are in prison over marijuana.
"And when you look at the drug crimes and break those down, there are somewhere around 200 folks in the penitentiary based solely on marijuana charges," said General Allen.
Here in Knoxville - police made 858 marijuana arrests in 2017. Between 2013 and 2017 -- KPD arrested nearly 4,700. However -- when you look at a first-time marijuana offender that was convicted in Knox County, the vast majority of were charged with what prosecutors call "probatable offenses," meaning they saw no jail time beyond the initial arrest and instead got off with probation.
"Before you are presumed to got to the penitentiary or to go into custody, you have to hand over 70 pounds of marijuana. And quite frankly, if you have over 70 pounds of marijuana, you should go into custody," said General Allen.
To put into perspective just how much 70 lbs of marijuana is -- see the tweet below from Sgt. John Perrine with the Indiana State Police Department. They seized nearly 78 lbs on a traffic stop back in 2018, which filled dozens of bags stuffed in the back of a large SUV and had an estimated street value of $250,000.
While the penalties aren't strict for first time offenders cited for possession, marijuana has not been decriminalized in the state of Tennessee -- and efforts to do so in Nashville and Memphis were quickly blocked by the state legislature in 2016.
The legislature also decided to reduce non-violent marijuana possession crimes to a misdemeanor in 2016.
Offenders caught selling or cultivating non-hemp cannabis plants, however, could face felony charges, prison time and hefty fines depending on how much they were caught with.