MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Organizers of the first-ever Mid-South Hemp Fest could not have wished for better weather or turnout for their event at Overton Park on Saturday.
The festival, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., hosted vendors selling, or even giving away, all sorts of hemp-based goods like CBD-infused foods, CBD oil, hemp flower and smoking utensils. Lee Otts of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Memphis Chapter, who planned the event, said it went way past his expectations.
“We expected it to be much smaller, honestly,” Otts said. “It just bloomed into the largest cannabis event in several states around us. It just shows what the people really want and how bad the legislation is here in Tennessee.”
A recent push in Tennessee legislature for legal medical marijuana was pulled until next year, and a few other decriminalization efforts have been stalled. A bill proposed by Tennessee Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) to take away felony charges for the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana failed April 10.
“You shouldn’t be locking people up for a plant,” Otts said. “It’s such a racial thing. Minorities are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis use than non-minorities, despite the same statistical usage. That’s not right.”
A 2014 bill passed in Tennessee allowed for hemp to be possessed if it contains less than 0.3% THC, which is the chemical in marijuana that produces a high feeling. It classifies that type of hemp as an industrial crop rather than a controlled substance.
CBD, the chemical in marijuana used for medical purposes, also became legal in 2014 in Tennessee for oils of for infusing into edible products.
Otts said he injured his neck a few years ago, so he would like the medical legality in the state expanded to allow people to use more types of products. With a recent indictment of 60 medical professionals nationwide in a federal opioid crackdown, including some in Memphis, Otts said he hopes people learn that they can turn to cannabis for the same needs.
“They (doctors pushing opioids) are the ones that want to control the medical marijuana bills,” Otts said.
Arkansas recently legalized medical use of marijuana, with dispensaries set to open in the state in May, and Otts said the acceptance of marijuana growing in a Southern state is promising.
That medical use is exactly what Tennessee’s hemp and CBD laws are intended to help, and hemp manufacturers know that.
One of the vendors at Hemp Fest, Ryan Rush of Rush Hemp Farms in Maryville, Tennessee, gave away hemp flower and 500 bottles of CBD oil to visitors of the festival. He said his goal was to reach people of low and no income and give them the gift of CBD for medical issues they may have.
“We’re not selling anything,” Rush said. “We’re just looking to give away products and try to spread a message of trying to get this plant back into a conversation with as many people as we can.”
The bottles are 1,000 milligrams of CBD oil, and each costs about $100 retail, totaling about $50,000 in product he gifted away throughout the day. Rush said he wasn’t worried about any loss of profit because he has a goal of getting the benefits of medical marijuana to as many people as possible, especially people who need it but cannot afford it.
He said he used to work in construction, but now he gets to work in a business he loves and that can benefit other people. He said he has different goals than most hemp vendors.
“Growing hemp and giving it away to people who are underprivileged like I was at one point myself with my family members’ health speaks more deeply to me than money ever does,” Rush said. “I love my job.”
Otts said he hopes he can more events like this in the future due to the success he saw this 4/20.