Nashville’s Open Air Illegal Cannabis Market – Innovation Without Legalization

by Justin Walsh

Sept 20, 2022 — Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Defense Research Institute annual marijuana seminar. This year, the seminar was held in Nashville, Tennessee. I had never been to Nashville, and it has been a while since I had the opportunity to gather with my colleagues in DRI, the last time being the annual convention in Chicago, back when I was there to attend the annual conference of Lowe’s Home Centers attorneys.

Aside from the great things about Nashville — music at all hours, amazing BBQ and other souther favorites (seriously, try the Shrimp and Grits at Geist) — something else struck me. On our ride from the airport to the hotel, our Senior Attorney, Britaney Garrett noticed a billboard advertising cannabis infusions at a restaurant.

Now, I teach Cannabis Law & Policy at Seattle University School of Law. This means, that as well as my standard work on behalf of Washington canna-businesses, I also maintain a fairly broad knowledge of the industry as a whole. Neither Britany, nor myself, remembered Tennessee being on the list of recreational cannabis markets. Later at the hotel, we confirmed this with a nerdy lawyer delve into the state statutes. In fact, the only movement on cannabis in recent years was a reduction of third time possession from a felony, to stay in place as a misdemeanor.

But there it was, a cannabis-infused restaurant, with every sauce containing a few milligrams of THC. In addition, a walk through the city confirmed pop up shows selling one-hitter vape pens with Delta-9 THC, pre-rolls, and edibles.

I do not utilize anything outside of a legal market. Why? When cannabis is grown in a black market, there is a lack of checks on things such as additives, pesticides, or even acceptable standards for lab testing. This means that what is on the label may not necessarily be what you are getting. These kind of things can include heavy metals for cannabis grown in foreign countries with falsified certificates of authenticity, banned pesticides, or even the inclusion of vitamin E acetate, which may cause lipoid pneumonia when inhaled in vapor form. Never mind the addition of illegality, and I am a stickler for the law (which my partner can confirm via my strict adherence to crosswalk lights).

So why, in Nashville, is this market occurring? In 2016, Nashville and Memphis passed legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts. In 2021, the State passed legislation for a very limited medical use, which provided for a maximum THC concentration of .9% THC (vape pens often contain up to 83% THC). Perhaps it is the introduction of hemp in the state, perhaps it was the medical legalization. Perhaps it was the decriminalization. Whatever the reason, Nashville’s cannabis market, though illegal, continues to normalize use within the City, and thus within the State. It will be interesting to see how this market develops.