Georgia’s Cannabis Legalization and What I Learned at Atlanta’s Pot Shop

In Atlanta, Georgia, the Little 5 Points Neighborhood is both a tourist attraction and favorite local destination. Iconic theaters like Variety Playhouse and the Star Bar stand alongside some of Atlanta’s most distinct restaurants and unusual shops. Prior to the pandemic, people filled the streets selling their wares and panhandling while reciting poetry and playing music.

For nearly 20 years, Atlanta Police Department’s zone 6 has operated a mini-precinct right in the heart of Little 5 points. And, since April 20, 2015, the mini-precinct has had a most unlikely neighbor: Atlanta’s Pot Shop.

A Little History

In 2015, Atlanta’s then governor Nathan Deal signed a bill to legalize the medical use of low THC oil in Georgia. Sponsored by Republican state representative Allen Peake, the bill represented a major step forward for Georgia at the time. However, it also came with its fair share of problems.

Nonetheless encouraged by the bill, Georgia cannabis activist Paul Cornwell opened the Pot Shop with the idea that it would be a “hemp emporium,” filled with items made of hemp-based fabric, as well as with cannabis-oriented memorabilia.

Most of that memorabilia comes from the personal collection of Cornwell himself, as well as from events held by his organization CAMP from 1978 to now. An acronym for Coalition for the Abolition of Marijuana Prohibition, CAMP is a globally focused reform organization with its roots exclusively in Georgia.

Past CAMP events include lobbying efforts at the Georgia Capitol, the July 4th Coalition Worldwide Marijuana March, smoke-ins of the seventies and eighties, and The Great Atlanta Pot Festival. An event celebrating music and marijuana that has occurred regularly since the nineties, The Great Atlanta Pot Festival has drawn crowds between 30 thousand and 60 thousand people.

After Georgia passed its limited medical marijuana bill in 2015, the city of Atlanta decriminalized cannabis possession in 2017, leading to further de-stigmatization of the plant and its use. Meanwhile, in 2018, the Farm Bill passed at the federal level and formally defined hemp as any cannabis plant possessing less than 0.3 percent THC, kick-starting the widespread popularity of hemp-derived CBD products.

Today, the Atlanta Pot Shop serves as the headquarters for CAMP, as well as a retail store that offers high-quality CBD products to the people of Atlanta.  

My Visit to the Atlanta Pot Shop

Even though I’ve been part of Atlanta’s reform efforts since the shop’s opening in 2015, I had never visited the establishment. That changed last week when I wandered in following my appointment at Grady Hospital’s Georgia Cancer Center for Excellence.

It was a cold, wet afternoon, but my spirits were high from what I thought was a positive visit with my oncologist. Having stage four cancer, I will never be cured; however, my body is doing a decent job of coexisting with the disease.

I was prescribed three new medicines, and one of my go-tos for managing the side effects of my condition and its treatments is various forms of cannabis. I headed into the Pot Shop seeking out some specific CBD products for pain relief and personal lubrication.

At first, I felt like I’d stepped back in time. The Pot Shop has warm, welcoming vibes but also feels as much like a small-scale cannabis museum as a store. It takes a moment to acclimate and sort through which items are there for education, for decoration, and for sale.

The store clerk, Marty, patiently waited while I took in my surroundings. When I finally got around to explaining what I was looking for, he acted with discretion and professionalism as he asked me a few questions and then found exactly what I needed.

A friend of Cornwell’s, Marty joined CAMP in 2008 and has been with the Pot Shop from the beginning. He took a few minutes to chat with me about what it’s been like working in a cannabis-oriented business as policies have been shifting slowly toward freedom.

Key Insights from My Chat with Marty- Reputable CBD products can be hard to find.

When asked about the time period when the Pot Shop added legal CBD oils to its product offerings, Marty says, “The first few months were an eye-opening experience, like the wild west. It took a lot to work with companies that were reputable.”

Some of the major issues were companies that only offered alcohol-based tinctures for CBD (a deterrent to recovering alcoholics and people whose systems are sensitive to alcohol), as well as companies pushing products that weren’t consistent with their labeling.

Today, Marty says the Pot Shop still discovers new brands mostly via word-of-mouth, but there’s a strict system in place for determining which are worth their salt. This involves sampling the products before making them available to the public and checking out the websites and lab result tests of prospective brands.

You don’t want to give someone poison when they’re trying to use it as medicine,” Marty says.

There’s tremendous diversity within the cannabis market.

From 2015 until now, Marty says there hasn’t been one most common type of cannabis enthusiast. Some people fit a stereotypical “hippie” aesthetic, but others present as conventional and professional.

Some come in seeking relief for their sick children and loved ones. Others are simply curious about how the new wave of CBD products can benefit them. Meanwhile, some are experienced cannabis consumers, while others are completely new to CBD.

People from a variety of racial backgrounds, political persuasions, and ages have also always come into the shop. According to Marty, “the biggest change is the acceptance of cannabis.”

While past clients were more careful to be sure that there was no actual cannabis present, current clients are happy to see limited quantities of CBD flower among the Pot Shop’s offerings.

The pace of reform may be slow, but it’s still going faster than expected.

While Marty joined CAMP in 2008, his activism actually started as a child in the eighties during the height of the War on Drugs. In those days, he lived in Ohio, where his friend’s mother was an active member of a local cannabis reform coalition. He and his friend handed out flyers for the coalition and encountered more negative stereotypes than enthusiasm.

I never thought cannabis would be legal in any state in my lifetime, “ Marty said.

Even though the cannabis legalization process in Georgia has been slow, it’s still moving faster than he expected, and the spread of legalization throughout Colorado, California, Oregon and other states is hopeful.

Marty says he welcomes the shift from destigmatizing and legalizing cannabis to “legalizing cannabis correctly,” in a way that’s equitable for everyone involved in the movement. Marty says he looks forward to doing more to help people who have been incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses.

Meanwhile, banks sometimes rival law enforcement when it comes to challenging cannabis reform.

According to Marty, Cornwell wanted his pot shop to be in Little 5 Points, not right next door to a police precinct. However, the best space available happened to have the police as a neighbor, and Cornwell just went with it.

Marty says he initially showed up to work with some apprehensiveness. However, this quickly faded when the officers on duty helped carry boxes into the space. For the past six years, the relationship between the Pot Shop and the police has remained peaceful.

However, the same degree of consideration for the Pot Shop’s activities hasn’t come from the banks. Even though the Pot Shop is not a dispensary (as this is still illegal in Georgia), banks have begun to treat it as though it is, blocking certain card-based transactions.

During my visit to the pot shop, Marty kindly held onto my selections while I trekked over to an ATM to withdraw cash.

Final Thoughts

Visiting Atlanta’s Pot Shop was a valuable reminder–both of how far cannabis reform has come and of how far it still has to go.

It gave me a glimpse of how it might feel for fully legal dispensaries to employ people who actually have experience within the cannabis movement instead of people looking to make a quick buck–a problem Sharon Ravert and I discussed earlier this month.

By reminding me of Georgia’s 2015 medical bill, it gave me added inspiration to sign up for my own official medical cannabis card.

Finally, by giving me a practical example of the challenges banking poses to the cannabis industry, it made me even more inspired to talk to Atlanta rapper/activist Killer Mike about his new Black-owned bank Greenwood and what it can do to help members of the cannabis industry.

I plan on addressing each of these topics in upcoming articles on the blog.

For now, please take a look at the sponsors who help make this site possible. And, when in Atlanta, check for CAMP events and give the Pot Shop a try. More information about the store and organization are available here.

I’m a professional copywriter and curriculum designer who also writes essays and poems about health equity, education, relationships and the dynamically changing landscape of drug culture–with a passion for cannabis! Some of my recent articles appear in HealthlineMashable and Inside the Jar. I currently live in Midtown Atlanta with my two children and share monthly updates on all projects via The Grey Way. Throughout my adult life, I’ve used many forms of cannabis to assist with focus, pain, anxiety and cancer. My favorite all-time strain = Headband because it alleviates pain and puts life in perspective.

Written by: Kelli Lynn Grey

Edited by: Veronica Castillo

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