Contributed photo / During a tour and roundtable meeting of stakeholders in the hemp industry, Landrace Bioscience Chief Science Officer Noi Obias demonstrates the water-soluble nature of the CBD oil the company produces.

This story was updated to correct the spelling of Elisha Millan's name. It was incorrectly spelled Alesha in an earlier version.

The market for hemp is blooming, but so are the challenges of building a business around a plant that looks exactly like its illegal cousin.

For farmer Llew Boyd, the headaches range from thieves stealing hemp plants from his fields in Marion County to trouble finding a credit card vendor to process his financial transactions. For John Kerns, founder of New Blooms Labs, the hurdles come in the form of shipments from clients that never arrive at his St. Elmo business because they've been confiscated by law enforcement somewhere along the way. For Chattanooga police officers trying to tell legal hemp from illegal marijuana during a traffic stop, the ability to verify the authenticity of the legal stuff is key — but they aren't always sure how to do it.

"There's a small group of local hemp producers trying to educate the community and stakeholders," Kerns said.

A dozen of those folks gathered Friday morning at Landrace Bioscience, a local hemp processor with operations just off Amnicola Highway. Landrace is pioneering new ways to extract CBD from hemp for uses in a range of products, and has set up a series of tours and round tables to encourage conversation and communication about these issues. The people around the table Friday included Chattanooga Police Department narcotics officers, an attorney who specializes in hemp issues, and the owner of a business that sells CBD products.

Hemp vs. marijuana

Hemp and marijuana are the same species of plant, but hemp contains very low levels of THC, short for tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana.

The passage of the federal Farm Bill at the end of 2018 cleared the way for industrial hemp farming across the country.

"We want to be legal and we want to be transparent," said Elisha Millan, owner of Grass Roots Health on M.L. King Boulevard.

The passage of the federal Farm Bill at the end of 2018 cleared the way for industrial hemp farming, and the industry has been growing like a weed since then. The number of industrial hemp farmers in Tennessee has grown from a couple hundred in 2018 to 3,800 producers licensed to grow as much as 51,000 acres of hemp statewide, according to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

To make things just a little more complicated, a few states have opted to ban industrial hemp farming, creating a few pockets where the federal law doesn't apply, said Stephanie Savage, an attorney at Miller & Martin who attended the meeting.

And the details of legal hemp farming and processing can be tricky to navigate. The difference between the legal hemp plant and illegal marijuana is measured in tenths of a percent. To be legal, hemp must contain no more than .3% THC, which is the psychoactive chemical that gives marijuana users a high. To know whether it's in compliance, hemp must be tested — and the margin of error can throw the plant into or out of technical legality.

Ensuring legality is a complex process made even more challenging by laws and regulations that aren't yet keeping up with the pace of the rapidly growing industry. The key is to pull stakeholders together and work to educate everyone as the landscape evolves, said Landrace CEO John DeMoss.

"How many times in your life are you going to get to be a part of creating an industry?" he said. "It's good to be here on the front end during the exploration phase. We're taking the learning we have and using that to craft an industry based on a strong foundation."

Contact Mary Fortune at or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.