Elisha Millan tends a crop of complexities in the hemp trade

Contributed photography by Randi Vasquez / Elisha Millan, owner of Grass Roots Health Hemp Dispensary.

Elisha Millan opened Grass Roots, Tennessee's first hemp dispensary, in Chattanooga in 2017 after finding relief from debilitating illness through CBD, a cannabinoid derived from hemp. Since then, she has opened an additional store in North Georgia and launched Henry's Wholesale Dispensary Supply on Wilcox Boulevard to help local stores get a wider range of products to support their hemp sales.

The hemp and CBD businesses have bloomed since the late 2018 passage of the federal farm bill that cleared the way for the legal farming and processing of hemp across the United States. Hemp and marijuana are different plants that look identical, but hemp contains extremely low amounts of the cannabinoid THC, which is the source of a user's high.

The primary focus of the hemp trade is on production of CBD, a non-intoxicating cannabinoid with a reputation for easing ailments from stress and inflammation to insomnia. But the push for legalization of marijuana, particularly for medicinal use, is growing. "Consumers are demanding access, and it's out there," Millan says. "It's just a matter of the laws keeping up with what consumers want."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You've had your Grass Roots stores for several years, but what prompted you to open the wholesale business?

A: In larger markets like Atlanta, we see huge wholesalers that tailor to what a broader-minded cannabis business would need, from specialty rolling papers to torches to pipes and everything between. Local business owners would need to have it shipped in or need to travel. We can offer that here now, and it's been great. I've had the opportunity to meet new entrepreneurs in the cannabis space, and one of the items we supply them with is industry knowledge. Many of the stores with new owners don't know what their customers will want, and they're able to get a customizable spread of items for their store and we offer them the ability to purchase with no minimum. A lot of the places you order from online you have to spend $500, so this will let them try things and see how it goes before they have to invest a lot of their startup finds.

Q: How did you discover CBD?

A: I was diagnosed at 21, I have Crohn's disease and inflammatory arthritis. I dealt with a lot of chronic pain because I wasn't willing to take pain medications. I would end up in awful shape and miss work and then I would get well enough to go back to work and suffer until I had to go back to the hospital. It was a really bad cycle. You hear about people using medical marijuana, but that did not appeal to me. I am a square. I am a rule-follower. I do not smoke. But my parents came across CBD and they knew it was not intoxicating. Dad had a pipe and tobacco store, and they came across CBD in that space, and I gave it a try. The first time I took it in 2016 I was able to get a good night of sleep, and that one night of sleep was such a relief I knew I had to look into this. Once I started taking it, around the beginning of 2017, I was starting to feel better, but having trouble having complete access. You could get CBD patches at Natural Body and that was about the only place.

Q: So you opened your own store. How did the pandemic affect your business?

A: The pandemic definitely had an effect. We weren't able to do all the things we had planned. For example, 4/20 is a huge day for us and we had to cancel all the things we had planned last year, and this year we didn't do anything big. But the biggest impact has been on my employees - they're mainly college age or early 20s and the pandemic has really socially stunted them, and a lot of my employees that were students chose to go back home or not continue their education. But it has also cemented CBD as a dedicated part of a person's health care. There are preliminary studies by the U.S. government that show controlling inflammation with cannabis may be part of treating COVID-19. And when people were out of work, their CBD was not something they stopped taking. It was like any medication. Some customers still choose curbside pick-up, but we also tightened up health measures in the store.

Q: There have been some interesting developments on the legalization front this year. Virginia has legalized cannabis for recreational use starting in July, which makes 16 states where that's true, along with more than 30 where it's legal for medical use. What is the landscape like in Tennessee?

A: It was sadly more of the same as far as the legislation in Tennessee, and the laws do not keep up with consumer demand. We were not expecting a fruitful legislative session in Tennessee, so I was surprised to see we had 13 pairs of bills submitted. Almost all of those since January have failed or some were delayed to 2022. Some were for access for veterans to regular cannabis, there were several that were straight legalization bills, some were carved out that applied to cancer, some were built to help police agencies in that if they stopped a person with marijuana who had an out of state medical marijuana card they would not have to cite that person. Consumers are demanding access and it's out there. It's just a matter of the laws keeping up with what consumers want.

Q: What about in Georgia?

A: A certain level of cannabis oil is legal in Georgia, but you can't grow it, buy it, sell it, or cross state lines with it. (According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, the law is intended solely to protect qualified people from criminal prosecution for possessing low THC oil for medicinal purposes.) The differences in the laws are state-to-state, and enforcement varies region-to-region. For example, I buy smokable hemp products in Atlanta, but I do not sell them in my store in Fort Oglethorpe. I advise staff and customers to not have those products on them in those counties.

Q: Isn't Mississippi making big changes?

A: The state of Mississippi passed medical marijuana, very consumer-focused laws and some of the best out-the-gate rules I've seen. It passed overwhelming with more than 70% of voters in favor of it. Since that period of time, the legislature in that state has been against it, so what we're seeing now is the fight to repeal that. On April 14, the Supreme Court of Mississippi started hearing arguments against the medical initiative going forward. I think the bill will be great for their state. It's very Mississippi-focused - all the product has to be grown, tested and sold in Mississippi. It would be great for their farmers. Given that it's a border state and one of our legislative bills up in Tennessee was not ticketing out-of-state residents with medical marijuana, it's something I've been watching closely.