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How Current Tennessee Laws Affect Drug Users

Without laws, uncivil action would permeate society. Laws are essential to maintaining order. Few of us would be willing to live somewhere that doesn’t have laws or an active law enforcement presence. 

Worn wooden gavel resting on a wood surface.
Wesley Tingey

Unfortunately, across the United States, existing laws unfairly treat people who use drugs. This is especially true in Tennessee — take syringe laws in Tennessee, for example. Further, law enforcement might not enforce more recent laws that treat people who use drugs more favorably. 

Here are several ways that Tennessee laws and law enforcement officers hurt Tennesseans who use drugs

Some Officers Just Aren’t Up to Speed

Here in Tennessee, we have a law known as T.C.A. § 40-7-124. It was codified — or written into law, in other words — in 2015. For pronunciation’s sake, that’s Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 40, Chapter 7, Section 124. 

The law doesn’t have an official nickname, though you may find it referred to as “Needle Possession Officer Awareness” — for ease of understanding, we’ll refer to it as the Needle Possession Officer Awareness law. 

Put simply, if someone gets apprehended by law enforcement and informs officers that they’re in possession of syringes or sharp objects before they’re searched, they can’t be charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, a violation of T.C.A. § 39-17-425, a Class A misdemeanor punishable by as much as one year in jail and $2,500 in fines.

This is one of the most common criminal charges Tennesseans receive — possession of drug paraphernalia, a violation of T.C.A. § 39-17-425. Law enforcement officers (LEO) are informed of these laws, as well as what constitutes evidence to actually charge people with criminal violations.

LEO are always on the lookout for syringes and sharp objects, as needlestick injuries can potentially lead to the transmission of blood-borne diseases like HIV or HCV (hepatitis C). 

People who inject drugs in Tennessee know all too well that being found in possession of syringes can land them in jail. As such, they’re incentivized to keep quiet about being in possession of syringes. Why, after all, would someone tell on themselves, potentially landing themselves in jail, on probation, or with expensive fines to pay?

This is a problem that LEO routinely face. 

This is the reason why the Needle Possession Officer Awareness law was written into state law by legislators in 2015. Their number one goal was to protect the police officers, deputies, and other LEO who protect civilians from criminals and maintain civility throughout Tennessee. 

Personally, I’ve been arrested for possessing drug paraphernalia, specifically syringes, even though T.C.A. § 40-7-124, the Needle Possession Officer Awareness law, should have protected me. I informed the deputy that pulled me over that I had syringes in my vehicle before I got searched and everything. Despite this, I got sent to jail for a night and had my vehicle impounded. Unable to afford bail or an attorney, I was forced to plead guilty, which resulted in me being put on probation, more commonly known as “11/29.” The probation costs are something like $700. The impound fee was about $250. I also put my loved ones through stress they didn’t deserve as a result.

Are all law enforcement officers here in Tennessee unaware of the Needle Possession Officer Awareness law? Surely not. However, the deputies that arrested me in September — referring to the incident above — weren’t aware. I’ve got a personal friend who works in law enforcement in Southern Middle Tennessee who wasn’t aware. 

I think it’s safe to say that countless other members of law enforcement across the Volunteer State also aren’t aware of this law. 

That doesn’t mean that they’re bad at their jobs, that we should launch a full-scale protest against them, etc. What it does mean is that we should strive to educate deputies, officers, and other members of law enforcement throughout Tennessee about T.C.A.§ 40-7-124. We should educate our friends and family members about this discrepancy, too. The more people who know about this, the more likely Tennessee law enforcement agencies will get on the proverbial ball and educate their employees about the Needle Possession Officer Awareness law and how to enforce it. 

Tennesseans Aren’t Incentivized to Get Medical Help for Drug Overdoses

I’m a long-term drug user and a lifelong resident of Tennessee. Having used regularly for about a decade now, I’ve heard countless stories of people not getting medical attention for others who experience drug overdoses. 

Why didn’t these people help their friends, acquaintances, or fellow community members seek medical help for suspected drug overdoses?

One reason rang true throughout all of these anecdotes: people were afraid of getting in legal trouble. 

Here in Tennessee, T.C.A. § 63-1-156, known by some as “Overdose Prosecution Immunity,” provides some protection to people who seek medical help for a suspected drug overdose, whether it be themselves or someone else. If you want to discuss this law with others, it’s pronounced as Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 63, Chapter 1, Section 156, for the record. Also, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll be referring to this law as the Overdose Prosecution Immunity law from here on out. 

I won’t be explaining the law in full. If you want to check it out yourself, here’s a link

It’s true that the Overdose Prosecution Immunity law does defend Tennesseans from legal trouble if they seek medical assistance for a drug overdose. This can’t be argued. However, the issue with the current iteration of this law is that it’s far too limited in scope. In other words, it doesn’t provide enough protection for Tennesseans who want to do the right thing by seeking help for people who are thought to be experiencing a drug overdose. 

Here’s what this law does: anybody who (A) calls 911, law enforcement, or a poison control center for or (B) assists someone in contacting these entities for or (C) directly provides care to someone who is thought to be experiencing a drug overdose “shall not be arrested, charged, or prosecuted for a drug violation.” They also won’t violate parole, probation, or any restraining orders or orders of protection in doing so. 

To be more specific about the term “drug violations,” Tennesseans are only protected against being charged with the Class A misdemeanors of possession of a controlled substance (T.C.A. § 39-17-418) and possession of drug paraphernalia (T.C.A. § 39-17-425). If people are found with a larger amount of a drug than what constitutes personal use, or simple possession, in other words, they’re not protected by the Overdose Prosecution Immunity Law. 

Here’s the Problem With This Law

Legislators did Tennesseans, in general, and Tennesseans who use drugs a favor by writing this law into state law books. However, they fell short in only allowing this law to protect people who are seeking help for the first time. 

To be fair, I understand why legislators made it this way. As a long-term drug user myself, I very much understand that drug use is risky. I’ve experienced opioid overdose at least three times, each instance of which could have killed me. Fortunately, I was given naloxone (Narcan) two of these times. Even though others might think that I “would have learned my lesson” after just one overdose, let alone three, people who use drugs and struggle with problem drug use or addiction often aren’t dissuaded from further drug use by an overdose. 

I know that I didn’t stop using after overdose. Few other people who use drugs stop immediately after they overdose and never use drugs again. 

I understand that legislators in the Tennessee General Assembly, where our state lawmakers meet, felt that giving people more than one “get out of jail free card” would encourage people who use drugs to keep using if they didn’t enact a strict limit on how many times Tennesseans would be provided legal protection by the Overdose Prosecution Immunity law.

Unfortunately, this just encourages Tennesseans to not seek medical assistance for people who are thought to be experiencing drug overdose. It also encourages them to not provide any help themselves, such as administer naloxone, the life-saving opioid overdose antidote. 

In the eyes of many people who use drugs here in Tennessee, the best thing they can do is get as far away from someone who is thought to be experiencing drug overdose.

Many Tennesseans Struggle to Afford Bail or Hire Attorneys — Here’s Why This Is an Issue

Law enforcement officers are incentivized to arrest people. It generates money for the jurisdictions they work in and may make the agencies they work for look better, thus finding themselves more likely to be awarded grants or otherwise favorable treatment. 

People charged with crimes who don’t plead guilty routinely experience better outcomes than those who do. Economically-challenged people are more likely to experience worse outcomes in court, getting longer jail sentences, more fines levied against them, longer probation time, and other unfavorable outcomes. 

The reason money sets low-income people back is because they can’t afford bail or to hire a private attorney. People who can afford private attorneys frequently experience better legal outcomes than people who are appointed public defenders by courts. People who can afford bail can better prepare themselves for court. 

Many Tennesseans are poor and can’t afford bail or to hire a private attorney. These people end up staying in jail longer after arrest. Their better-off, more wealthy counterparts are able to post bail just hours after being jailed, allowing them to return to their jobs, families, and lives nearly instantaneously. 

Here’s an example of how this comes into play. 

When I was jailed in September for possession of drug paraphernalia — again, even though the Needle Possession Officer Awareness law should have protected me from criminal charges — I felt forced to plead guilty the next day in court because I was on probation at the time and had to check in with my probation officer for a regularly-scheduled monthly meeting, like always. Waiting to be appointed a public defender by the court would have taken at least two weeks, I was told, causing me to not be able to report on time and likely ending badly for me. 

I also wanted to get back to work as soon as possible, as I can’t afford to miss work. As such, I pled guilty as soon as I possibly could, even though I knew I didn’t break the law and that T.C.A. § 40-7-124, the Needle Possession Officer Awareness law, would protect me from prosecution. 

This problem isn’t unique to me. Countless thousands of Tennesseans plead guilty to criminal charges they’ve been given, whether or not they’re actually guilty, to return to their normal lives as quickly as possible. 

Putting Everything Together

These aren’t the only ways that contemporary Tennessee laws and law enforcement officers unfairly influence people who use drugs. However, these three things are major problems that Tennesseans currently face.

By Daniel Garrett

I'm a self-employed writer, long-term drug user, and resident of rural Tennessee. Find me on Twitter at @DanielGarrettHR or email me at danpgarr@ut.utm.edu.

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