Elisha Millan is a self-described "goody-two-shoes."
"I'm a stay-at-home-mom-looking rule-follower," she says. "I'm not someone you'd look at and think, 'Oh, she's on cannabis.'"
Except Millan is on cannabis. She takes cannabidiol (CBD) for Crohn's Disease and inflammatory arthritis. Moreover, her CBD experience led her to open Grass Roots Health in downtown Chattanooga five years ago this month – the first store in Tennessee of its kind, she says.
"I was in the store one day when one of my customers with Crohn's came in, and I got to hear what products of mine are helping her," says Millan, who opened a second retail location in Fort Oglethorpe in 2019 and a wholesale operation on Wilcox Boulevard in 2020.
"I have another customer who's the parent of a toddler with seizures, and she uses my products for her daughter. It's great to see the reach that cannabis has – it's not about getting high. It's about getting healthy," she adds.
A soccer standout at Chattanooga Central High School and Tennessee Wesleyan College, Millan was less than a year removed from her college graduation when she got her diagnoses. She says she didn't want to take opioids, so she lived with the pain. Finally, she went on disability in 2009.
"To attend my daughter's piano recitals, I'd have to wait in the car until she was about to play," she recalls. "I'd go in, then go back to the car and lie down.
"You can't explain chronic pain to people. You don't want to be that person, the one always talking about their pain — but the pain's always there," she says.
Millan says her parents, small business owners themselves, brought her some CBD from a trade show they attended in 2016. The effect, she says, was nothing less than a revelation.
"Sleep," she says. "I was able to get a good night's sleep for the first time in years. I started being able to participate in things with my daughter again. Travel again.
"Having that hope was amazing," she adds, "and I thought everyone in our area needed to have access to those products."
Millan says she decided to take on that task herself. She was armed with years of experience watching her parents own and run small businesses, but quickly became discouraged.
"I really wanted to be down by UTC, because I knew college students were open to cannabis," she recalls. "The problem was finding a place willing to rent to a cannabis business."
Millan says the rejections piled up until, finally, she opened Grass Roots Health at 301 Martin Luther King Blvd. The date was June 12, 2017 – the day Riverbend Festival attendees jammed the boulevard for the Bessie Smith Strut.
"There was a lot of police presence," she recalls, "but even though everything in the store was 100-percent legal, not everyone was willing to come inside."
Millan says that in the early going on MLK, she'd sometimes go entire days with no customers. But today, she adds, her business boasts annual income in seven figures.
She says her retail growth leveled off after the first couple of years, due in part to the global pandemic and because of the exponential increase in competition. In recent years, she adds, the growth of her business has been on the wholesale side.
"It became difficult to house and maximize efficiency in the space I had," she says. "I needed a home spot to keep all my products moving efficiently."
Millan says she once took 14 different medications for her Crohn's and inflammatory arthritis. She says she also battles thyroid cancer — brought on, she believes, by years of the drug regimen for those prior conditions.
"I only take four meds now," she says, "but I know I'll never be cured. I'll never not be on meds. I still have days when I'm not able to work.
"But I'm in a place now where I have hope," Millan says. "Now I have the option to utilize cannabis as medicine, and I have an outlet to help people dealing with those same issues. That's where the real hope comes from."