One of the most common misconceptions Lesley Pittman Thomas hears as the owner of a cannabis dispensary is that hemp is fake — that it’s not “the real stuff.”
Whenever this happens, she explains that hemp and marijuana are both species of the cannabis plant and contain cannabinoids like CBD, which is commonly used to treat chronic pain, inflammation, anxiety and insomnia.
The real difference is you can’t get high from hemp, as it’s specially grown to contain 0.3% or less of the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), per federal guidelines. Marijuana typically contains 5-20% THC. Hemp is also completely legal across the United States, while marijuana is only legal in certain states.
“People say, ‘Oh, I use the real stuff.’ Like, OK, hemp is real, too,” Pittman Thomas said. “It’s cannabis. I always use the analogy of greens. You have different types of greens — turnip greens, mustard greens — but they’re still greens.”
Pittman Thomas knows that understanding the differences and similarities between hemp and marijuana can be confusing, that’s why education is a major platform at her South Boulevard store, The Hemp Source.
Headquartered in Wendell and run by Armaney Richardson-Peterson and Charles Peterson, The Hemp Source is a vertically-integrated organic cannabis company that’s licensed by the state to grow industrial hemp. The Black-owned, family-run company grows, harvests and processes their hemp plants on a 100-plus acre farm in eastern Wake County that they transitioned to hemp in 2017 after generations of growing tobacco.
The final products — flower, oils, edibles, lotions, etc. — are then distributed to their 10 franchised dispensaries in North Carolina and Alabama, including The Hemp Source on South Boulevard, which Pittman Thomas opened in 2018 as the first Hemp Source franchise.
It’s a seed-to-shelf business model that allows for control at every stage of the process, Pittman Thomas explained.
“Everything that is in the store that is hemp-related has been touched by human hands. There’s no big machinery,” she said. “So when you talk about small business, you can’t get any smaller than us … We are the grower, we are the processor, the supplier and the end result.”
A budding industry
The Hemp Source was an early inductee of the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Pilot Program, established in 2015 through the passing of the federal Agricultural Act of 2014 and subsequent state legislation.
North Carolina began accepting applications for the program in 2017, just as The Hemp Source got off — or out of — the ground.
Interest has been strong since the pilot program began. According to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS), there were 1,500 licensed hemp growers in the state as of July 30, 2021, with 6.8 million square feet of greenhouse space and 14,016 acres registered for production. In addition, there were 1,295 registered processors.
“When you look at it, the license numbers are in the four to five digits — our license number has three digits — so being one of the first, it’s like, wow,” Pittman Thomas said. “When this whole program sort of started, it was like, ‘What is gonna happen?’ And now you see it grow.”
In the five years since, the federal government passed the 2018 Farm Bill, which made hemp a legal agricultural commodity and established the regulatory framework for a Domestic Hemp Production Program managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The NCDA&CS announced in August 2021 it would eliminate the Hemp Pilot Program at the end of the year and hand oversight of the industry over to the USDA, making North Carolina the first state to discontinue pre-existing state-run oversight.
As of January 2022, North Carolina hemp farmers must now get their licenses through the USDA, and there remains some uncertainty regarding the future of hemp farming in North Carolina. However, thanks to their USDA license and the vertical nature of their business, The Hemp Source is set to weather whatever storm comes its way.
For many, hemp provides relief
Thomas first heard about the budding hemp industry from a friend and was curious, so in May 2018, she attended a meeting of the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Commission (NCIHC) — the nine-member body responsible for general oversight of the Hemp Pilot Program, including application review and approval.
Someone there invited her to an event for Black farmers, which is where she met Richardson-Peterson and Peterson, founders of The Hemp Source. Once she toured their farm and production facility and learned about their products, she was hooked and said she wanted to become part of the industry.
In September 2018, just two months after the CEOs opened their flagship dispensary in Wendell — and as Hurricane Florence battered their crops at the farm — Thomas opened the second location in Charlotte.
She said she sees a lot of customers at her South Boulevard cannabis dispensary who tell her they’re in pain, or experiencing inflammation or anxiety and want relief outside of traditional medicine.
Most of the time, they come in not knowing what they want or even what hemp is all about, so Thomas has to first educate — and sometimes re-educate due to false information — before helping them find the right product. She then takes into consideration a customer’s height, weight, metabolism, pain level and whether they’ve used hemp before to determine the proper dosage and method.
The Hemp Source carries a variety of hemp products, including the flower itself, both in store and online, that customers can smoke, eat or apply topically. Thomas said among her most popular products is the hemp tincture — oil placed under the tongue that ranges from 150-2,000 milligrams of CBD — and the pain salve, which is for rubbing on sore knees and joints.
There’s also hot sauce, lollipops, mints, gummies, bakery treats, honey, chocolate, body butter, soap, bath bombs, shisha for hookah and pre-rolled joints, among other items, plus a monthly subscription box service for customers buying multiple products. The Hemp Source also sells products containing delta-8 THC — the psychoactive cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant that’s legal in North Carolina and has exploded in popularity over the last two years — as well as hemp CBD oil and treats for pets.
Pittman Thomas is the first to admit she is not a doctor and cannot make any medical claims about the results of using hemp. However, the stories she’s heard and the results she’s seen from customers speak for themselves.
“When people are consistent — they’re not just throwing money at me — that says something, “ Pittman Thomas said. “I mean, when you come in and I see a whole different person from who I met initially … like, we’ve helped people get over drug addiction.”
Advertising and marketing were among Pittman Thomas’ biggest challenges when she first opened The Hemp Source in Charlotte, due in large part to a lack of education surrounding hemp and its legality. In the beginning, she said, hardly any companies would run ads for the cannabis dispensary because “they weren’t sure about it.”
“There was one company that embraced us and the only reason I think this company embraced our marketing was because the sales associate was an advocate for cannabis, and not marijuana,” she said. “They were an advocate for hemp because they had an experience that helped them.”
Pittman Thomas still struggles to this day with letting customers know The Hemp Source cannabis dispensary is on South Boulevard, nestled in a strip mall just south of South End, next to a Steak ‘n Hoagie Shop and Grecos Chicken.
“Opening was the easy part. The hard part is saying ‘Hey, we’re over here,’” she said, adding that it has remained difficult despite the area’s rapid growth.
As a native Charlottean, Pittman Thomas said she “remembers South End before the train,” referring to the light rail, and when the iconic Queen Park Cinema was across the street from where her cannabis dispensary sits today. She has watched buildings grow from the windows of her storefront, and while some of the city’s history and character has been compromised in the process, she said being amongst the growth in South End has been exciting.
There are also many more cannabis dispensaries in Charlotte now than there were four years ago, but Pittman Thomas doesn’t see them as competition. The Hemp Source stands out through its seed-to-shelf model, she insisted.
“There are aspects of the plant that everybody can participate in,” she said. “It just really gets down to the quality of the product and how it’s processed.”
Additionally, being a Black woman in the cannabis industry comes with its own set of challenges. For Pittman Thomas, it all started at the NCIHC meeting back in May 2018, when curiosity fueled her first steps toward learning about the industry.
“At that meeting, I could count the number of women in the room on both hands, and it was a huge room,” she said. “But also in that room, I could count the minorities on one hand.”
Pittman Thomas said she didn’t feel out of place as a Black woman in a white industry because she was taught from a young age that she belongs in every room she walks into. But that’s not to say there haven’t been challenging times since then.
She recalled a situation at her cannabis dispensary when she overheard a male customer asking a female employee several questions and demanding to see the business’ license. She could tell he was angry and “had an issue dealing with women.”
She came out from the back room when he asked to speak to the owner, but he didn’t believe she was the person in charge.
“His words were, ‘How did you get something like this?’” Pittman Thomas said.
“Minority women, we have to be — not 10 times — a million times, gazillion times more on our feet daily no matter what industry we’re in, but especially in the cannabis industry,” she added.
The cannabis industry, particularly when it comes to hemp, is rife with misconceptions and misinformation. Pittman Thomas said people are sometimes unsure if they can even come into The Hemp Source — if it’s a legal business — and have even called from the parking lot to double check.
Once they’re inside, Pittman Thomas puts her educator cap on and there’s no such thing as a stupid question. She breaks down the similarities and differences between marijuana and hemp, full spectrum and broad spectrum, CBD and delta-8, and has data on hand to back up everything she teaches.
“We strive on education,” Pittman Thomas said. “We don’t want customers to feel like they just bought something and they have no idea what they bought.”
Every day at The Hemp Source she works to dispel the biggest misconception of all: that hemp is fake and it’s not “the real stuff.” That is, until people smell it or experience it for themselves, Pittman Thomas said.
About 15 minutes after saying that, a customer walked in and said: “I want to see the difference between this and the real thing.”
Pittman Thomas just smiled. That’s her cue.