The State of Cannabis
Marijuana is still prohibited in Tennessee. But as a new boutique on Gay Street demonstrates, people are getting high legally anyway.
by jesse fox mayshark • August 31, 2022
some of the cannabis products for sale at The Holistic Connection on Gay Street. (Photo by Alan Sims/Inside of Knoxville)
If you walk into The Holistic Connection at 716 S. Gay St., you could be forgiven for wondering if you’re really in Tennessee.
Even a leading Republican skeptic says "the public is ready" for medical marijuana.
Everything from the array of cannabis-infused products at a retail counter up front to the fancy glass pipes on the “Dab Bar” at the back feels very much like the kind of dispensaries you see in states that have legalized the sale and consumption of marijuana.
That feeling only increases when co-owner Rekesh Ali opens the lid on a jar of thick green buds and an aroma familiar to anyone who’s ever been to Bonnaroo wafts out. It looks like marijuana, and it smells like marijuana, and — crucially, to the prospects for Ali’s business — it has psychoactive properties like marijuana. But at least as far as the government is concerned, it’s not marijuana. It’s hemp. And it’s legal.
“All day every day, ‘How is it legal?’” Ali said, repeating the question he hears most from customers.
The answer lies in the state’s increasingly contradictory approach to substances derived from different but closely related plants of the same genus.
The Holistic Connection store — a franchise of a Tennessee chain that now has 13 locations, most in the middle of the state — leans into that contradiction. It bills itself as a “cannabis dispensary,” all but inviting comparison to legal marijuana outlets elsewhere.
The downtown Knoxville location is in the district of state Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, a persistent skeptic of legalizing marijuana. He recognizes the logical problem in sending people to prison for trafficking in one form of intoxicating cannabis, while allowing an entirely unregulated legal market to boom for a slightly different form.
“Quite frankly, the best thing for the public would be to just ban it completely,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Indeed, Briggs — who is running for reelection to a third term — said that he conducted an internal poll of regular Republican voters in the 7th District, which stretches from rural North Knox County to Farragut, with a dogleg through downtown. About three-quarters of the respondents identified themselves as “very conservative.” And 50 percent of them favored legalizing marijuana for medical use.
“I’m guessing if you just did across-the-board residents in Knox County, probably at least 65 percent of them would be in favor of medical marijuana,” Briggs said. He suggested that it would probably also pass a statewide referendum, if one were held.
It seems likely that the proliferation of legal hemp-derived intoxicants embodied by the Holistic Connection is itself a gateway, in this case to broader cannabis legalization.
How Did We Get Here?
The backdrop to Tennessee’s conundrum is the accumulating momentum for marijuana legalization across the country. Since California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, the United States has become a patchwork of different approaches to the issue.
Currently, medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation is legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Recreational — or as the industry prefers, “adult use” — marijuana is or will soon be fully legal in 19 states. The closest to Tennessee is Virginia, where weed is currently legal for personal possession and use, and commercial sales will begin in 2024.
Tennessee is among the holdout states, mostly in the South and Midwest, that have so far resisted any form of official legalization.
But a type of legalization has arrived anyway, courtesy of the 2018 federal Farm Bill. That legislation cleared the way for legal cultivation and sales of hemp nationwide, partly on the grounds that it would be a valuable cash crop for the agricultural sector.
The law defined hemp as a cannabis plant that contains less than 0.3 percent delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol — the molecule typically abbreviated as THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. The logic behind the bill was that crops with such low levels of intoxicants could be used only for non-narcotic purposes.
At first, that was true. The plants were used for industrial purposes and also to produce cannabidiol, a different ingredient popularized as CBD. Although a range of unregulated CBD products soon flooded the country, offering promises of stress relief or help with sleeping, they for the most part did not have psychoactive effects.
Then came Delta 8. As you might guess, its full name is delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol, a slightly different molecule than the banned Delta 9, but one that is still a form of THC. It is not naturally present in hemp plants in quantities that would produce intoxication. But it can be produced from CBD through a process of chemical conversion. And yes, it can get you high.
Although scientific data on any of this is scarce, most reports indicate that Delta 8 produces a lighter, less overpowering buzz than Delta 9 — particularly the high-potency strains of marijuana now being grown.
As Briggs, who has studied the issue deeply, puts it, “If you want to get that same marijuana high, you can eat one Colorado (marijuana) gummi bear, or two Tennessee Delta 8’s.”
He added, “It’s like we have legalized marijuana.”
Except that Briggs says Delta 8 has some health concerns that go beyond those for the more familiar Delta 9. Not least is the production process, which involves cooking CBD with organic solvents and acids, creating the potential for lingering chemicals and by-products. (Other synthetic compounds can be produced this way, including Delta 10, which also produces some level of euphoria but is even less well understood than Delta 8.)
Delta 8 products have spread across the state, at CBD stores, vape shops, gas stations and liquor stores, with no legal oversight.
“It’s totally unregulated in Tennessee,” Briggs said. “The problem is when you buy it, there’s a whole range of what you’re getting. There still may be the contaminants that are in there due to that process.”
He noted that even some states with legal forms of marijuana ban Delta 8 products because of their potential dangers.
He cited warnings about the drug issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA says it “received 104 reports of adverse events in patients who consumed delta-8 THC products between December 1, 2020, and February 28, 2022.” Effects included vomiting, hallucinations, dizziness and loss of consciousness.
Eight percent of the reports to the FDA involved children under the age of 18, raising concerns about the spread of THC packaged in gummis and other child-enticing forms.
Making the Connection
That uncertain landscape is what the Holistic Connection aims to bring some assurance to. Mike Solomon, the chain’s owner, came to Knoxville last Friday for the Gay Street store’s grand opening. He said he offers essentially a vertically integrated business, growing his own hemp and ensuring safety and quality at each step of the process.
“The plant’s with me ever since it’s a seed,” he said. “No breaking the chain of custody, that’s what the legal people like to hear.”
Solomon moved to Tennessee from California, where he spent seven years as a licensed medical cannabis grower. He says he holds his products to the standards set by the Golden State’s stringent regulations, even though it’s not currently required by Tennessee law.
His stores will serve people over 21 only — also not required by law — and aim for a high-end, friendly boutique experience. Noticing the abundance of glass pipes displayed on the bar at the Knoxville store, Solomon told the staff to put some in less prominent places.
“The only thing with having all the glassware out is it will start to look smoke-shoppy in here,” he said. “We want to avoid that.”
Besides pipes, the bar offers THC-infused mocktails and seltzers, as well as Jell-O shots. And the retail counter up front offers THC in many forms, including cannabis-infused marinara sauce, mustard, ketchup, coconut oil and more.
“Every crop gets analyzed by a third-party lab to make sure that there's no illegal substances in there,” Ali said. “And then they just start making all the products at the facility. The beautiful thing about it is all the processes are very clean, a lot of transparency.”
He said the cannabis industry in Tennessee would welcome state-level regulation, which would amount to legal recognition.
“We're doing the best we can to make sure we have a safe product,” Ali said. “We really only serve to a certain age group. We label everything properly with servings and all that. So if the regulations come, it’s going to look like us. We’re not worried about it.”
For now, though, he acknowledged that the store is in kind of a sweet spot — no oversight, no state licensing, no taxes above regular sales tax rates (unlike alcohol or cigarettes), and no fear that someone is going to sweep in and shut it down.
“I don’t have to get a special business license, I don’t have to pay any special taxes, there’s really no regulation,” Ali said.
As for managing customers who may have a little too much cannabis at the bar, he said they would handle it like any other bar: cut people off who have had enough, and wake them up if they doze off.
The Legislative Landscape
Kevin Caldwell is the Southeast legislative manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation’s leading cannabis legalization group. He tracks legislative efforts across the South, and in Tennessee he sees one particular sticking point.
“The biggest problem in Tennessee is the leadership in the Senate,” Caldwell said. “You can get some traction going on something in the House, and then it just goes to die in the Senate.”
Briggs, a member of the Senate, actually agrees with that assessment.
“The Senate wants to ban them completely, put them out of business,” he said of the growing legal cannabis industry.
During the past legislative session, Briggs co-sponsored a bill that was initially captioned as a complete ban on Delta 8 products but evolved into a proposed regulatory structure. It would have required product control to make sure there were no contaminants, sales to people over 21 only, and clear labeling of dosages — basically the things the Holistic Connection is already doing.
“It looked like the horse was out of the barn if we were going to try to ban it,” Briggs said. “So what we had proposed doing, and it was a fairly involved bill, was to go ahead and have people get licenses to sell it.”
That bill ran out of time in this year’s session, but Briggs expects something like it to come back — along with bills proposing various levels of marijuana legalization. He thinks even Republicans in his own chamber may come around to some degree, out of political pragmatism if nothing else.
“A reasonable thing for even a conservative Republican to run on is medical marijuana,” Briggs said.
He should know — he faced a primary challenge earlier this month from conservative activist Kent Morrell, a strong advocate for medical cannabis. In November, Briggs will face Democrat Bryan Langan, who like many Democratic candidates in Tennessee is campaigning for full marijuana legalization.
Caldwell cited a 2018 poll from Middle Tennessee State University showing that 81 percent of respondents favored legal medical cannabis, while 37 percent favored complete legalization.
“We've seen everywhere else across the country that in the four years since that poll has been taken, numbers just continue to rise,” he said. “And I think it's that you have leadership that is really just kind of stuck in a mid-century mentality.”
A factor beyond public sentiment that Caldwell thinks will weigh on persuadable legislators is the amount of tax dollars that any kind of legal cannabis program could produce. He said Colorado, one of the first states to fully legalize marijuana, cleared $300 million in cannabis taxes in 2019, after paying for regulatory costs. Washington state generated $450 million in 2020.
And, he adds, it’s not as if Tennesseeans aren’t currently spending money on cannabis. The Tax Foundation ran an estimate that if already-occurring marijuana sales in Tennessee were taxed at average excise rates, the state would immediately see $132.5 million a year.
“Those are revenues that are recurring, that are going untaxed right now,” Caldwell said.
That doesn’t mean that Briggs, for one, would vote to support it. “I’m just not there yet,” he said. “If we did have medical marijuana, I would prefer it would come out of the pharmacies, where it’s regulated.”
But, he said, “The public is ready for it.”
The Holistic Connection can attest to that. Within a few weeks of a soft open in July, Ali said the store had already become profitable.
“We’re not going anywhere for a long time,” he said.
He and his partner have plans for more stores — possibly in Gatlinburg and West Hills — and they are looking to franchise another one of Solomon’s concepts: a sports bar called Buds & Brews, which serves bar food with cannabis-infused sauces and dips.
On his Friday visit to the Gay Street store, Solomon looked at the menu and had one suggestion for bringing some local flavor to it.
“We need orange Jell-O shots,” he said. “I’m bringing up orange Jell-O shots Wednesday, for the game.”