CHATTANOOGA Tenn. — Not long after Elisha Millan opened Grass Roots Health, Tennessee’s first hemp dispensary, a woman from a nearby church walked through her door in downtown Chattanooga, timidly passed the neat rows of pipes, rolling papers and CBD oils, and asked if the products would make her high. The customer, who leads a predominately African-American congregation in worship as a piano player, suffered from pain in her hands and fingers from decades of constant play. She had heard that CBD-based creams could help soothe pain, but she wouldn’t take if it meant getting stoned.
Millan patiently explained that although CBD originates from a cannabis plant, it is processed from hemp and lacks the mind-altering amounts of THC found in marijuana. The elderly woman, skeptical at first, bought a bottle of Mary’s Muscle Freeze and was on her way.
A few days later, another church piano player came in looking for the same muscle cream. Soon Chattanooga church ladies started visiting together, as a group, to stock up on CBD ointments.
“There are a lot of churches here, and a lot of church piano players. They whisper to one another,” Millan told The News Station. “The piano-playing community has a lot of connections, and that is one of the main ways we’ve broken through.”
Millan’s conversations with these women to quell their worries of getting high are common for dispensary owners in a place like southeast Tennessee, where Christians, particularly conservative evangelicals, comprise a sizable portion of the population. But despite years of stigma in many church communities over anything related to substances, hemp has boomed in the Bible Belt. And not just among church pianists: Pastors are growing hemp and selling their own CBD products; mothers who teach Sunday School are giving CBD tinctures to their own children; and one of Tennessee’s largest CBD companies grows its hemp in greenhouses on a farm owned by Amy Grant, a Christian music mega-star.
“No one wanted to rent to a cannabis-based business. That part was difficult from the start”Elisha Millan
Today, CBD stores are almost as ubiquitous as churches in Tennessee. Millan’s wholesale business sells to around 80 other stores carrying CBD within a 50-mile radius of Chattanooga. Nationwide, CBD is a multi-billion dollar industry. The 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills kicked off a growth boom on farms in the South, particularly in Kentucky and Tennessee. The 2014 bill loosened regulations on hemp, and the 2018 update obliterated decades of prohibition and brought a new economic sector that’s now thriving coast to coast, even in the Bible Belt.
Retail stores slowly opened in the subsequent years until they exploded onto the scene of late. When Millan opened her shop in 2017, Chattanooga was rated the most church-going city in the United States. A study conducted by Barna Group found that 59% of Chattanoogans attend church at least once a week, compared to 38% nationwide. The American Bible Society rated the city’s residents as the most “Bible-minded” in the nation.
“The sentiment of the general public has changed tremendously. People are more open to it,” Graciela Moreno, executive director of the Cannabinoid Industry Association, told The News Station. “CBD companies are looking to the South. There’s a large population in the South that they want to market to and reach.”
Doing so successfully, however, required businesses to learn to speak differently about cannabis-based products than they would in other parts of the country, like California or Colorado, where even churchgoers have gotten used to marijuana being a part of the local culture for years, in terms of recreational use, and even decades now when it comes to medicinal cannabis. Tennessee is one of just 14 remaining states where marijuana remains illegal, even for medicinal purposes. It’s also one of the 19 states where simple possession of marijuana can still land you in the slammer. Those anti-cannabis laws — coupled with many a fiery sermon railing against the pitfalls of eating the forbidden fruits of fallen men — have surely had an impact on the culture.
Although Millan’s business would eventually take off, she struggled to gain credibility at first.
Because of the formerly illicit nature of her products, banks were hesitant to offer her a loan. When Millan first started looking for a retail space to open the business, landlords refused her. Once she eventually found a location, the property insurance company representing the business dropped her coverage after a representative perused the company’s Facebook page.
“They would ask about what my business was, and it was a ‘no’ every time,” Millan said. “No one wanted to rent to a cannabis-based business. That part was difficult from the start.”
She eventually found a landlord who rented her a bright, ground-floor space with large windows in an up-and-coming part of the city next to a consignment store.
For retailers like Millan, it wasn’t just about learning how to answer questions from customers with faith-based and conservative backgrounds, they also had to offer different products than consumers are clamoring for in other regions of the nation. Customers who come into Grass Roots Health often won’t buy anything even with a trace of THC, so Millan has to ensure they always carry products with 0.0% of that chemical — the very chemical that drives customers to shops in other states.
“There is definite demand for products with zero THC,” she said. “We have a lot of customers here who don’t want any of that, whether it’s due to their religious beliefs or personal health beliefs. Having a conversation with someone in Colorado, they don’t understand why anyone would want no THC.”
Millan is a practicing Methodist. Once the business was up and running, she was looking to ingratiate her fledgling company with the community while also seeking to live out the teachings of Jesus enshrined in the Bible, so she researched and sought out local causes that could use donations. Many non-profits rejected her offerings.
“I wanted to give people money, and they said they could not accept it,” Millan said. “The perception was that this was money from cannabis.”
Instead of attempting to give funds directly, Millan tried something different. She launched a non-profit called “Fund 129,” named after Genesis 1:29 — a Bible verse in which God grants Adam, the first man, “every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it” to be “yours for food.” The plan worked, allowing Millan to donate a portion of her profits to non-profits through the separate entity.
Millan isn’t the only person working in the CBD marketplace to draw from Bible verses like Genesis 1:29, Ezekiel 47:12 or Revelation 22:2 — all of which discuss using plants for health. Those verses have been commonly quoted by potheads for decades to justify their formerly taboo habit, but they’re also now en vogue among those companies who market to evangelical customers. They have become something of a rallying cry for business owners looking to sell these products to the faithful.
“If we’re in pain, whether it’s emotionally or physically, then it’s hard to carry out the mission of winning people for Him or serving the least of these and making the difference that we’re called to make. Most Christians that I encountered were curious, not condemning. Even pastors”Natalie Gillespie
Natalie Gillespie, the editor-in-chief of GodsGreenery.com — a health retailer that also researches products from a Christian perspective, or at least with the robust purchasing power of American evangelicals in mind — said she found justification for use of CBD from the same set of scriptures.
“I did not see anything that was prohibitive, scripturally, about CBD,” Gillespie told The News Station. “In fact, you could argue that it’s encouraged to use what He’s given us for our health benefits.”
Gillespie was raised in Methodist and Assemblies of God churches, where she was taught that “anything labeled ‘cannabis’ was going to send you straight to Hell or prison.” When she first started writing about CBD, Gillespie weighed what Biblical scriptures said about the use of plants with health results she found from CBD and quickly came around.
“If we’re in pain, whether it’s emotionally or physically, then it’s hard to carry out the mission of winning people for Him or serving the least of these and making the difference that we’re called to make,” she said. “Most Christians that I encountered were curious, not condemning. Even pastors.”
Pastors have also started to get in on CBD businesses. After growing hemp was legalized, Adam Swanson — a non-denominational preacher in Murfreesboro, Tenn. — partnered with a retired missionary to grow it. They started processing CBD, calling it “Gen 1:29 CBD Oil.” The move, however, earned him a line of questioning from church elders concerned about why their pastor was entering that market.
“We had people in our church who were really uncomfortable with it,” Swanson told The News Station. “We had to be real clear and explain that it’s not psychoactive, it’s not addictive and that it doesn’t have the higher levels of THC.”
Like many Christian retailers, Swanson, whose business is separate from his pastoral work, justifies the CBD sale through his interpretation of scripture, particularly Genesis 1:29. And the products continue to sell.
“There is an embracing of it to a degree that I didn’t expect,” Gillespie said. “But there’s still a learning curve.”