Legal cannabis is finally coming to the South.
In states across the South, advocates and entrepreneurs have been pushing for the change in the region that historically been most resistant to opening up the cannabis industry.
A few of the results: Virginia will become the first southern state to legalize the adult use of cannabis. Four other states including Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and South Carolina considered cannabis decriminalization bills. Tennessee and Kentucky’s bills failed. Alabama and South Carolina are still debating medical cannabis bills.
Cannabis advocates say decriminalizing the plant and getting into the $61 billion cannabis industry could bring needed tax revenue to the South, relieve people convicted of possessing cannabis and provide patients another option for managing symptoms of their chronic illness.
Here are six cannabis advocates you should know in the deep South.
Even though Virginia becoming the first Southern state to legalize adult cannabis use, Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML said there’s still a lot of work to be done in the South.
“It’s important for every state to end marijuana prohibition and begin undoing the damages it’s caused,” they said. “The South has seen very minimal reform, and I think that makes Virginia’s progress all that more meaningful. Hopefully, it opens the floodgates.”
Pedini said Virginia’s approach to cannabis legalization was measured, and involved many studies and reports. The state started with a limited medical cannabis program in 2018. After a few years of operation, and more studies and reports, the state legislature expanded its medical program this year.
“I hope that Virginia’s progress encourages other lawmakers in the South to engage in meaningful reform in their states. There’s room for progress in the South, whether it’s through adopting medical programs, adopting or expanding medical cannabis programs, decriminalizing personal possession, legalizing and regulating adult use or expunging past convictions,” they said.
Advocates, consultants, hemp growers and CBD shop owners across the South are using their stories, successes and their customers’ stories to push toward cannabis decriminalization and expungement of nonviolent cannabis convictions.
John Parker and Jennifer Otwell, two hemp CBD shop owners in Birmingham, knew they had to do something when the Alabama legislature attempted to ban products containing Delta-8 THC.
Delta-8 THC is a compound found in hemp and cannabis. It’s similar to Delta-9 THC, the compound federally controlled in the 2018 Farm Bill that gets you high. Delta-8 THC can cause effects similar, but less potent, than the effects of delta-9 THC. Delta-8 is not controlled, and has become an in-demand product sold at many hemp and CBD stores across America.
Parker, owner of Near to Me CBD, and Otwell, owner of Magic City Organics, who on any other day would consider themselves competitors, joined hands to create the grassroots organization Alabamians for Health and Wellness to oppose the Delta-8 ban.
They started a petition, hired a lobbyist and asked their customers to make phone calls and write letters to their legislators about the benefits of Delta-8 THC.
Parker and Otwell knew the testimonies from their customers would be important. Both have seen their customers experience relief from chronic pain, PTSD, and opioid abuse thanks to the CBD and Delta-8 products they sell.
In all, they sent around 70 anonymous testimonials from physicians, mental healthcare providers and customers to legislators.
“And that’s just a small slice of the pie,” Otwell said. “I have people come up to the store in tears saying, ‘I wouldn’t even be here today if it wasn’t for this. I was on over 10 medications, and now I have no side effects and I have my life back because of this.”
Parker has witnessed the effects of the opioid epidemic on his friends, and says he’s a cannabis advocate because of them.
“I got sick of having dead friends and heroin addicted friends,” he said.
Parker himself uses CBD to treat his arthritis pain, and hopes more people can relieve their pain with cannabis.
Law enforcement officials, including a group of Alabama district attorneys, have long called cannabis a gateway drug. A group of Alabama district attorneys went so far as to send a letter to lawmakers asking them to oppose the limited medical cannabis bill currently making its way through the legislature.
For Parker, the claim is empty. Forcing people to go to the black market, where they could encounter other narcotics, to buy cannabis is the true gateway, he says. Because of that, he’s an advocate for adult use of cannabis and regulated dispensaries.
“The introduction to the black market having to get this plant that we’ve been using for thousands of years is what could even be conceived as a gateway,” he said. “If you think about it, candy is a gateway drug. Beer surely is too.”
Through their nonprofit Alabamians for Health and Wellness, they hope to continue to advocate for cannabis legalization and expungement of cannabis convictions in Alabama.
Although voters approved Initiative 65 at the ballot box in November, the Mississippi Supreme Court is still trying to decide if the medical marijuana initiative should be the law in the Magnolia State.
Despite the lawsuit, cannabis advocates are confident that Mississippians said what they meant when they went to the ballot last year. Hardy Case, a Mississippian and cannabis industry consultant, says he doesn’t expect local governments to oppose having cannabis business in their communities, even though the mayor of Madison, a wealthy suburb north of the capital city, is leading the charge against Initiative 65.
“I don’t see a lot of local pushback from city officials, as long as the potential businesses are open and direct with the members. The times that I see problems are where people don’t take permission correctly and don’t present their business plan in full. The earlier they started communicating and asking questions, the easier it will be for everyone,” Case said.
Case believes medical cannabis in Mississippi and the legalization of adult-use cannabis in Virginia will draw more people, and industry, to the South.
Similarly, the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association believes cannabis could revolutionize Mississippi’s economy and the state’s prisons, which are too often overcrowded, said Jessica Rice, executive director of the MSCTA.
“All around, that would be great for Mississippi, and I want to be a part of and bringing in that change,” she said. “This could be a new revenue stream and a way to address some of these issues that we have in our criminal justice system with overpopulation and relief for people with nonviolent drug convictions.”
Collin Bercier owns Ounce of Hope Aquaponic Farm and Dispensary in Memphis. Bercier was motivated to learn more about cannabis’ medical uses after his mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. He knew cannabis would not cure her MS, but thought it could help her be more comfortable. At the time, medical cannabis was not available in Louisiana, where she was in a nursing home. She died in 2016.
Helping his mother turned into a passion, then a business. Originally from Louisiana but due to the State’s restrictive marijuana laws, he chose Tennessee as the state welcomed hemp businesses. He also chooses to grow fish and plants indoors due to the South’s unforgiving climate.
In his large-scale, 10,000 square-foot aquaponics (growing plants using water and fish) facility, Bercier houses 4,800 gallons of Ornamental Koi and Tilapia and 6,300 square-feet of plant rooms. He offers tours of the aquaponic facility where they grow, extract and formulate products.
The key, he believes, to legalization and more broad acceptance of cannabis is normalizing the use of cannabis and more education about how cannabis works.
“We can go up to the capitol and scream at these guys all day. That doesn’t necessarily do anything. Here in the South, I think there are a few ways to do it but for me, it’s just being outspoken. We need to make facilities and dispensaries that are warm and welcoming where people can come in and get a lot of education. They can come to our grow facility to see our plants, feed the fish, see how we extract things, take a tour of the facility and ask us any questions they want. Normalizing this a little bit more I think helps a lot,” he said.