HBCU’s Engage the Cannabis Industry
written by Dianna Benjamin

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Cannabis prohibition has been a disaster for black communities. The silver lining is that a lack of federal legality means the industry is still taking form.

In addition to creating supportive, safe, and intellectually rigorous environments that raise up successful black professionals, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are getting involved in the cannabis industry. HBCUs are aware of the cannabis moment our nation is in and are actively creating more equitable opportunities for young black people who want to participate in it.

FAMU Promotes Social Equity Through Medical Marijuana Research Initiative

Florida A&M University launched the Medical Marijuana Education and Research Initiative (MMERI) to educate Florida minorities about the benefits of medical marijuana as well as the impacts of illicit cannabis use in early 2020.

Florida’s medical marijuana program was implemented in 2017. As a part of that legislation, the state allocates a portion of funds for the education of “minorities about marijuana for medical use and the impact of the unlawful use of marijuana on minority communities.” FAMU receives $10 of the $75 identification card fee to carry out this objective.

The MMERI has 3 goals:

  • To educate Florida’s minority communities about the benefits of medical marijuana and the impact of unlawful marijuana use
  • To add to the body of research supporting medicinal cannabis use
  • To conduct ongoing assessments of the MMERI’s effectiveness

One way the MMERI is reaching these goals is by providing grants to researchers. Currently, research grantees are investigating topics including the

  • impact of cannabis on mental health
  • implications of legal cannabis on black Floridians
  • accessibility of medical marijuana to Florida minorities
  • success of black entrepreneurs in the medical marijuana industry

The MMERI is committed to community outreach. It fulfills this commitment by holding community forums throughout the state of Florida. During these forums, experts explain the benefits of medical marijuana and caution against its illegal use. The MMERI also provides free digital resources, including news updates and a weekly podcast.

Southern University Launches a Hemp Product Line

Many universities across the country have started to offer cannabis-related degrees to keep step with the flowering industry. But Southern University made history in early 2020 when it became the first HBCU to start a cannabis business.

Southern University’s Agricultural Research and Extension Center will produce the hemp-extracted CBD products distributed by ALAFIA, a CBD brand.

Southern University has partnered with Dr. Chanda Macias, a Howard alumnus, scientist, health care provider, advocate, and entrepreneur. Macias’ team at Illera Holistic Healthcare and Southern University have launched the ALAFIA brand. ALAFIA’s products will be available for purchase at local Louisiana dispensaries and online nationwide.

Ray L. Benton, Southern University president, described the business partnership as exemplary of the HBCU’s values.

“Southern has been a leader in agriculture and the sciences for 140 years while staying true to its mission of access. This CBD venture with Illera encompasses all of that. We look forward to advancing this vision and serving as a model for other universities,” said Benton.

Clark University Offers Cannabis Regulatory Certificate

Clark University became the first university in the nation to offer a Certificate in Regulatory Affairs for Cannabis Control in the fall of 2019. The program consists of 3 online courses. It promises to teach students how to understand the

  • role of social, economic, medical, and legal influences on cannabis regulation
  • most effective ways to educate the public about cannabis health and safety
  • best leadership practices to ensure the health and safety of the public as it pertains to cannabis regulation
  • regulatory bodies that oversee the cannabis supply chain

John LaBrie, dean and associate provost for professional graduate education at Clark University’s School of Professional Studies, explained the need for such a program.

“There’s a great deal of cannabis research happening in the medical and scientific realms. Our degree program here at Clark University will examine the public-policy issues, which are being largely underserved right now,” he said.

Multiple HBCUs Launch Hemp Research Programs

HBCUs have also taken advantage of their states’ laws authorizing hemp pilot research programs.

North Carolina’s A&T Hemp Pilot Program works with small scale producers who want to grow hemp. The team focuses on researching hemp varieties most suited to grow in North Carolina, soil health and growing conditions, the use of hemp in new energy technologies, and the many uses of hemp.

Tuskegee University is 1 of 5 of Alabama universities licensed to grow and study hemp. Tuskegee’s program will focus on the growth cycle of the hemp plant based on plant variety as well as hemp varieties that produce the most CBD and fiber.

Delaware State University launched its hemp research program in 2019. The University will partner with small hemp farmers and use their fields to conduct research. Researchers will focus on which hemp varieties are best suited for the state’s growing conditions as well as hemp’s uses.

HBCU Engagement with the Cannabis Industry Promotes Social Equity

After the Civil War, black people were excluded from universities that only served the white population. HBCUs were a response to the need for education. They have become places of safety, access, community, pride, and refuge for black students.

By engaging with the cannabis industry through creating cannabis-related degrees, hemp research programs, or cannabis businesses, HBCUs are making entry to this burgeoning industry more accessible to young black people, a group that has been historically targeted by the war on drugs.

As Hope Wiseman, the youngest dispensary owner in the United States and a Spelman graduate, explains, now is the time to influence the long term structure of the cannabis industry.

“I saw this huge opportunity there for African-Americans for a field that is still shaping. Most large corporations are dominated by white men, and I wanted a chance to be a part of this one,” she said.

In 2017, Hope Wiseman and her mother, Dr. Octavia Wiseman, opened Mary and Main, a Maryland medical marijuana dispensary.

“Spelman taught me how to juggle a lot of things at once. They teach you how to be multi-faceted. That’s been my biggest strong suit,” said Wiseman about how her HBCU prepared her for the journey.

HBCUs have equipped black students for more than 180 years. The cannabis industry presents these institutions with another way to continue that mission.

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