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C.J. Carter, Kentucky State Director of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, shares the details about his lifelong relationship with cannabis, how it helps his epilepsy, being a cannabis advocate in the Bluegrass state, and his work around cannabis education and legalization.
Two weeks after C.J. Carter, Kentucky State Director of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, quit smoking cannabis, he had his first seizure. Here, Carter talks about his lifelong relationship with cannabis, how it helps his epilepsy, being a cannabis advocate in the Bluegrass state, and his work around cannabis education and legalization.
At C.J. Carter’s eighth-grade graduation party, he tried cannabis for his first time; he was 13 years old. Fast forward about 20 years to June 2018, he was married, on vacation with his wife, and cannabis-free for two weeks when at 6 a.m. he woke up with three men hovering over him in his hotel room. Carter, now the Kentucky State Director of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, had just suffered his first seizure, the first of 30+ seizures he would experience in the next 2.5 years. A few weeks later, after his fourth seizure, he was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy.
Through various tests, MRIs, and CAT scans, the doctors learned that Carter had a cavernoma behind his left eye—a dark spot on his brain. And although Carter has since made several lifestyle changes—diet (low salt, no fried foods, no sugar), weight loss, and so forth—he still consumes cannabis because he believes it’s his medicine.
“I’m not a doctor, but I believe that I’ve been medicating myself my whole life, and I didn’t realize it,” he said. “It wasn’t until I stopped consuming marijuana that this condition came to light. Based on what the doctors said and the science, the cavernoma had been there for a while.”
Doctors continue to monitor it every six months because if it increases in size, he’ll need to have brain surgery.
In 2015, Carter decided to enter the cannabis space with his brother, George McGill, founder of Comfy Tree Enterprises, three years before his seizures started. The two traveled around the country giving educational seminars and then moved into product development where they developed Comfy Hemp, a cannabidiol (CBD)-derived tincture. Shortly after, they became licensed in the state of Kentucky to cultivate and process hemp.
Carter started advocacy and policy work in 2019 after suffering several epileptic seizures and his week-long hospital stay. The Epilepsy Foundation of Kentuckiana contacted him, and shortly after, he was asked to testify in front of the House of Representatives on cannabis legislation, which eventually landed him a role in the documentary Hemp State (1) produced by Elijah McKenzie.
“I read a while ago, Pericles had a quote that said, ‘Just because you don’t take an interest in politics, doesn’t mean that politics won’t take an interest in you.’ And that’s the viewpoint I have,” said Carter. “I’ve had an interesting relationship with politics—I was fed up with all the bickering and the lies; it turned me off, but then something happened that caused me to jump into this fight head-on. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
A well-known fact about Kentucky is its soil is rich in limestone. It enriches crops with magnesium and calcium and is the reason why so many crops are grown in the Bluegrass state: corn, tobacco, soy, barley.
“At one point in time, Kentucky produced 90% of the nation’s hemp,” Carter said. “They call us the Bluegrass State—a pun because every year on the legacy market, Kentucky rates in the top three in the nation for illegal export of marijuana.”
Carter and his brother George, along with several good friends, had the same vision that Kentucky was going to have premium CBD and cannabis products due to the limestone in the soil. “We wanted to come up with a non-profit vehicle where we could educate the masses on the cannabis plant,” he said. “Once upon a time [harvesting hemp] was a very laborious process. You’d have to get down in the dirt to turn it into the rope and clothing they were making. It was all done by slave labor. In fact, there is a book called A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky (2) that documents the entire history of the state’s relationship with hemp. And we knew that day was going to come back.”
In 2019, although Carter and his team created bylaws and a business plan for their nonprofit called Cannabis Economic Diversity Association (CEDA), and submitted them to the IRS for an employer identification number (EIN), the IRS turned them down, stating they were no longer allowing nonprofits associated with cannabis to be established. “Through CEDA, we wanted to provide technical assistance,” Carter said. “We developed and cultivated resources on all segments of the cannabis space to educate and empower individuals and communities that have been adversely affected by poverty and social injustice. But we also wanted to provide equal access as well as economic empowerment and resources to businesses who decide to engage in the cannabis space. We wanted to serve entrepreneurs, patients, and employees. We had a whole list of stakeholders, but CEDA didn’t happen.”
What did happen is, that summer, Carter was on vacation in Orlando and through various means, was able to connect with Roz McCarthy, CEO of Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM). A month later, she and her board chairman, Erik Range, asked Carter if he’d like to head up advocacy and policy work for cannabis in the state of Kentucky.
According to their website (3), the mission at M4MM is to cultivate "a culturally inclusive environment where diversity of thought, experience, and opportunities are valued, respected, appreciated, and celebrated." The goals at M4MM are to serve as a resource to their communities by providing information, referrals, advocacy, coordination, and education regarding cannabis legislation, events, activities, initiatives and discussions—all ideas that Carter was trying to achieve with CEDA. It was a natural fit for him and today Carter serves as the Kentucky State Director (4).
“Of course, I did get involved with M4MM,” he said. “I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to share my story and develop relationships with others, so they could tell their stories. Cannabis is a natural medicine, and people need to know. I don’t want people to be afraid to tell their story. If we could convince the politicians and the legislators to hear these stories, maybe that could change the tide.”
“That’s how regulation works,” he explained. “It’s a give-and-take in the cannabis space. This space is in its infancy, so there is a lot of learning that’s going on. We’re doing a lot of crawling right now, especially regarding policy in the state of Kentucky.”
Kentucky has 138 legislators; Carter has met with 16. “Most of the time, when you speak with a legislator, they tell you they’re not educated on the subject. That’s my role as state director—educating them to the best of my ability to see where they stand. Let them know that if you’re for it, great; if you’re not for it, why are you against it?”
Carter wants to find ways to get legislators on their side of legalizing cannabis in Kentucky, which could change the economic future of the state, not to mention other issues such as opioid addiction. “We have a natural medicine that can help alleviate some of the issues we have with overdoses and people abusing prescription drugs,” he said.
But as he pointed out, it’s too tough to accomplish anything in the cannabis space alone—it’s a collective effort. “The cannabis economy that we’re building in Kentucky can flourish and be a beacon of light across the country, so others can use us as a model because we are going to be an epicenter for cannabis.”
Carter and his team are still in the process of getting their first piece of legislation passed. Ten cannabis-related bills have been introduced in the state, but the one with the most traction was authored by Rep. Jason Nemes, House Bill 136: “An Act relating to medicinal cannabis and making an appropriation therefor.” It was passed through the House, moved to the Senate, and was stuck in the House Judiciary Committee when COVID-19 hit and halted everything. An amendment was drafted, too, with a social equity measure that ensures individuals who are considered minorities also have a path into this space.
Carter said one of the main legal measures he hopes to see is restoration from the damage caused to individuals as a result of cannabis prohibition. “Cannabis has been illegal for quite some time now, and a punishment regime has been set up. I want to create an automatic process at no cost to the individual to expunge or seal their criminal records and establish a process of resentencing for individuals who are serving sentences right now for cannabis convictions.”
In addition to talking to politicians and policymakers, Carter is hitting the road to have face-to-face conversations with folks in his state. Why? A few reasons, but one big reason is the fact Kentucky is an extremely red state, which means there are a lot of conservatives, folks who are staunch believers that cannabis is a drug—that you can overdose on it, and it kills.
Carter and his team developed summer programming, including festivals, to educate folks. “We plan on traversing the state to start conversations with people and build on what we’ve already done but also increase the pressure on the legislators by building our grassroots movement and attending the festivals across the state,” he said. “Even though this is the age of information, it’s also the age of misinformation. We want to point citizens in the right direction where they can experience and hear my story, so there’s a connection.”
Their next step is to set up a landing page to gather people’s information to build their grassroots movement, as these next several months are crucial in their fight for cannabis. “A survey was done a year and a half ago that found 90% of respondents are in support of cannabis in the state of Kentucky,” Carter said. “It’s my goal to find that 90%, so I can let them know I need their help. We need each other’s help in establishing this new economy. We’ve got five months left until the legislative session starts in January—we have to build momentum to get these politicians to start doing some work on this next legislative session.”
Quite frankly, a lot. Carter is setting up an expungement clinic to help erase individuals’ records and remove non-violent, drug-related charges. He is also taking steps to establish a cannabis real estate consulting firm, as one of the most important questions when establishing a legitimate cannabis business is where to set up shop. Is it a dispensary, a cultivation facility, or a testing lab? To accomplish this goal, Carter recently completed 96 hours for real estate school, and the next steps are passing the real estate exam, then teaming up with a brokerage firm.
“Whatever the cannabis business is, everything has to be zoned correctly,” Carter pointed out. “And a cannabis real estate consulting firm can assist individuals who want to cultivate or manufacture and get set up and approved for their application.”
As Carter continues to fight on capitol hill and rally locals to support cannabis, he is most proud of his persistence and having the courage to take a stand. “A lot of people are unable to due to their employment, their beliefs, or just their perspective,” he said. “A lot of people are afraid to take the stand that I have.”