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In a Bible Belt City: No to Casinos, Yes to Cannabis

Faced with hard times, Bristol, Virginia chooses a proposed grow over a casino.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In a sign of the changing times, a city in Virginia is opposing the building of a casino but in favor of allowing legal medical marijuana.

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This is clearly a reversal of past policies in the South, where gambling casinos and lotteries were approved while the use of marijuana was prohibited.

The new thinking was summarized by Dewey Williams, an evangelical Baptist preacher in the city of Bristol, who told the Virginia Mercury that a proposed casino “is an attack on the Bible Belt. I don’t think anybody in their right mind could say if we get a casino we’ll be safer, we’ll be happier, families will do better, there will be less suicide, less divorce.”

But marijuana? Williams said he’s seen the good it can do those who are suffering from illness.

Related: Sluggish Bureaucracy Is Blamed for Disappointing Marijuana Tax Revenues in Massachusetts

Department store converted to cannabis grow 

Bristol, with a population just shy of 18,000, is located on the state's southern border with Tennessee. The city is among the most conservative places in Virginia. It delivered the state's second-highest proportion of votes to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. It’s also been hard hit by the downturn in the coal industry.

Despite the economic hardships, the city council has allowed a local company to move ahead on a cannabis project. Dharma Pharmaceuticals, which won one of five state licenses to produce THC and CBD extracts, plans to grow cannabis in what used to be the J.C. Penney department store. They will employ about 150 people in a vacant shopping mall. 

The company will be using a CO2 process to extract CBD and THC oil from the plants. The extracts can, in turn, be sold to patients with state approval and a doctor’s prescription.

Residents applauded the plan at a community meeting last year.

Related: Will Medical Cannabis Sales Eventually Surpass Recreational Sales?

Casino controversy

However, plans to build a casino have no gone over so well. 

Two coal industry leaders, Jim McGlothlin and Clyde Stacy, proposed putting a casino in the old Bristol mall, which is expected to employ thousands of people. McGlothlin and Stacy vowed to put $250 million into the casino, according to the Mercury. But many oppose the venture on moral grounds (primarily the Baptists in town) and fears over the spread of gambling addiction.

Some also are wise to the potential failure of casinos. Tammy Baines, who works at a pawn shop in the city, told the Mercury that casinos have failed in places like Atlantic City and smaller towns around the country. She’s also seen how people are struggling as a worker in the pawn shop.

“They come to us because they’re already struggling. You hate to think that they might spend every last dime they have on a chance to either make more money or lose everything,” she said.

State lawmakers have commissioned a study to weigh the pros and cons of legalizing gambling.

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