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To Home Page. National Drug Intelligence Center
Tennessee Drug Threat Assessment
May 2002



Map of Tennessee.

Note: This map displays features mentioned in the report.

With approximately 5.7 million residents Tennessee is the sixteenth most populous state. Memphis, located in the southeastern portion of the state near the Mississippi River, is the most populous city. Nashville, the state capital, is located in the north-central area of the state. The two other principal cities are situated near Nashville: Chattanooga is 128 miles to the southeast, and Knoxville is 178 miles to the east. The major cities in Tennessee serve as drug distribution centers for smaller communities in the state. Tennessee can be divided into three regions: western, central, and eastern, which correspond with the Western, Middle, and Eastern U.S. Attorney Districts.

Fast Facts
Population (2000) 5,689,283
U.S. population ranking 16th
Median household income (2000) $32,047
Unemployment rate (2001) 4%
Land area 41,217 square miles
Capital Nashville
Other principal cities Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis
Number of counties 95
Principal industries Agriculture, construction, entertainment/tourism, forestry, mining

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Tennessee is a transit area for drugs--particularly cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine--destined for other states. The major interstates in Tennessee--24, 40, 55, 65, 75, and 81--extend through rural areas and mountainous terrain and provide for the transportation of drugs. Interstate 24 extends from Chattanooga to I-57 in southern Illinois. Interstate 40 extends from North Carolina through Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis to California. Interstate 55 extends from Louisiana through Memphis to Illinois. Interstate 65 extends from Alabama through Nashville to Indiana. Interstate 75 extends from Florida through Chattanooga and Knoxville to Michigan. Interstate 81 extends from I-40 east of Knoxville to New York.

Drugs are transported into and through Tennessee using a variety of methods. Typically, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and, to a lesser extent, heroin and other dangerous drugs are transported overland in tractor-trailers and private vehicles. These drugs are also transported into and through the state using package delivery services. Tennessee has international airports in Memphis and Nashville and has 83 county or municipal airports. The Memphis International Airport is headquarters to one of the world's largest international package delivery services, and since 1992 has been the number one cargo handling airport in the world based on the number of packages handled. The U. S. Customs Service (USCS) reported significant increases in 2000 in the amount of drugs, particularly cocaine and methamphetamine, seized from packages at the Memphis International Airport. Most of the packages were destined for other states.

To a lesser extent, criminal elements use buses to transport drugs into and through Tennessee. Law enforcement officials report that cocaine and heroin occasionally are transported and seized on buses. Seizure data and law enforcement reporting indicate that railroads rarely are used for drug transportation despite the availability of daily passenger rail service and the high volume of freight transported by rail--nearly 250 million tons were received in Tennessee in 1999.

Mexican criminal groups and street gangs, primarily African American, both based in Tennessee, are the primary transporters and wholesale distributors of drugs available in Tennessee, particularly cocaine and marijuana. Mexican criminal groups commonly transport drugs in tractor-trailers, private vehicles, and through package delivery services. Street gangs usually transport drugs in private vehicles. Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, Mara Salvatrucha, and Vice Lords are the dominant street gangs distributing wholesale and retail quantities of drugs in the state. Local law enforcement officials in Memphis estimate that the city has over 10,000 street gang members, and most distribute drugs. (See text box.)

Street Gangs in Tennessee

   Bloods and Crips

Bloods and Crips are violent street gangs that formed in Los Angeles in the 1960s. The gangs are primarily African American in composition. Both gangs comprise loosely organized factions or sets that are typically turf- or neighborhood-oriented. Generally, gang sets are established by an entrepreneurial individual who runs the set and recruits members to distribute drugs, primarily cocaine. Bloods and Crips distribute drugs in California and in other states, including Tennessee. Although Bloods and Crips sets are located throughout the United States, not all gangs that claim to be Bloods or Crips are affiliated with the Los Angeles-based Bloods or Crips. Bloods and Crips embrace the principles of individualism, loyalty to their own members, and violence against other gangs. Bloods and Crips harbor deep hatred toward each other and each considers the other a rival. The two gangs will, however, cooperate in criminal ventures for profit.

   Gangster Disciples

Gangster Disciples is the largest Chicago-based street gang and its members primarily are African American. This gang has been in existence since the early 1960s and has an organizational hierarchy similar to a corporation. The gang distributes cocaine, heroin, and marijuana primarily throughout Chicago, usually in low-income areas on the south and west sides of the city, and in over 40 states including Tennessee.

   Mara Salvatrucha

Mara Salvatrucha is a violent street gang with a strong presence in California, Maryland, New York, Texas, and Virginia and an increasing presence in Tennessee, primarily Nashville. Original members were refugees from the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s; many were former soldiers and guerrillas well-trained in weapons and warfare tactics. Current members include second generation Salvadorans as well as other Hispanics. Mara Salvatrucha members have distributed drugs, primarily marijuana, and committed aggravated assaults, assaults on law enforcement officials, homicides, home invasions, auto thefts, and black market weapons violations. Gang members sometimes trade marijuana for weapons, particularly handguns. Some of the weapons are retained for personal use and some are smuggled to El Salvador.

   Vice Lords

Vice Lords is the oldest street gang in Chicago, and its members are predominantly African American. Vice Lords distributes cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and some heroin in Chicago, Tennessee, and other states. Vice Lords gangs in Tennessee are located predominantly in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville. Vice Lords is split among major factions: Conservative Vice Lords, Traveling Vice Lords, and Four Corner Hustlers.

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Drug distribution and abuse frequently are associated with other crimes in Tennessee. Drug distributors commonly commit assaults and drive-by shootings, and drug abusers often commit burglaries and thefts. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reports that the number of drug-related investigations increased 54 percent from 622 in 1999 to 957 in 2000.

The percentage of drug-related federal sentences in Tennessee has increased, particularly for cocaine and marijuana, and is significantly higher than the percentage of drug-related federal sentences nationwide. The number of drug-related federal sentences in Tennessee increased 48 percent from 335 in fiscal year (FY) 1997 to 495 in FY2000, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Tennessee had more cocaine-related federal sentences than sentences related to any other drug in 2000. The number of cocaine-related sentences increased 32 percent from 200 in FY1997 to 263 in FY2000. The number of marijuana-related sentences increased 66 percent from 73 in FY1997 to 121 in FY2000. In FY2000 about 46 percent of all federal sentences in Tennessee were drug-related compared with 39.8 percent nationwide.

Table 1. Drug-Related Federal Sentences, Tennessee, FY1997-FY2000

  1997 1998 1999 2000
Cocaine/Crack 200 241 266 263
Marijuana   73   75 118 121
Methamphetamine   35  79   63   91
Heroin    9   30    8    4
Other   18    11   15   16
Total Drug Sentences 335 436 470 495

Source: U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Survey and treatment data indicate that drug abuse rates in Tennessee are below national rates. According to the 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 5.2 percent of those surveyed in Tennessee reported having abused an illicit drug at least once in the 30 days preceding the survey compared with 6.3 percent nationally. According to the 1999 Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) data, Tennessee  had 73 smoked cocaine-related treatment admissions to publicly funded facilities per 100,000 population compared with 76 per 100,000 nationally. There were 10 admissions per 100,000 for cocaine administered via another route, 32 for marijuana, 3 for methamphetamine, and none for heroin. These were all lower than the national rates. (See Table 2.)

Table 2. Drug-Related Treatment Admissions to Publicly Funded Facilities Per 100,000, Tennessee and Nationwide, 1999

  Tennessee National
Cocaine (smoked) 73  76
Cocaine (other route) 10  28
Marijuana 32 103
Methamphetamine  3  32
Heroin  0 105

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Treatment Episode Data Set.

High school students in Tennessee report abusing drugs at rates comparable to high school students nationwide. According to the 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 47.0 percent of high school students surveyed in Tennessee reported having abused marijuana at least once in their lifetime compared with 47.2 percent of high school students nationwide. Additionally, 9.5 percent of high school students surveyed in Tennessee and nationwide reported having abused cocaine at least once in their lifetime; 10.2 percent of high school students surveyed in Tennessee reported having abused methamphetamine, higher than the 9.1 percent reported by high school students nationwide.

The financial impact on Tennessee's government from substance abuse-related costs is significant. In 1998 Tennessee spent over $918 million on substance abuse-related programs including child-family assistance, education, justice, health, mental health-developmental disabilities, and public safety. This figure amounted to approximately 10 percent of the total expenditures for the state. When factoring in the cost of lost productivity and nongovernmental expenses by private social services, estimates for total substance abuse-related costs were even higher.


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