Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is setting the blueprint for HBCUs to enter the legal cannabis industry.

The strictly prohibited cannabis plant has grown into a nearly $20 billion industry as of last year, according to Techcrunch. Unfortunately, as the cannabis industry booms and heads to a $40 billion annual industry in four years, these numbers don’t translate when looking at the percentage of BIPOC with a leadership stake in the industry. 

“Less than a fifth of the people involved at an ownership or stakeholder level were people of color, a 2017 survey found. Black people made up only 4.3 percent,” NBC News reported. These disparities aren’t just in the industry itself but can also be seen with marijuana-related arrests. While Black and white people smoke weed at the same rates, Black people are still nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for weed-related charges, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). 

“Racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist across the country, in every state, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small Black populations,” according an April 2020 report by the ACLU. “Indeed, in every state and in over 95 percent of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 1 percent of the residents are Black, Black people are arrested at higher rates than white people for marijuana possession.”

These staggering stats of the amount of Black people working in leadership in cannabis and those who are arrested for cannabis laments the importance of Black people having a strong footing in the legal cannabis industry. 

In July, Southern University announced its line of THC medical cannabis products called Ayo, Forbes reported. This move made Southern the first HBCU to sell a line of medical cannabis products, a bold move for a university based in the Deep South. Southern University’s Agricultural Research and Extension Center partnered with a third-party medical cannabis company called Ilera Holistic Healthcare to produce Ayo, which means “joy” in the Nigerian language Yoruba. While the university has seen success since the launch of Ayo last year, what they really want to see is more schools following suit as they set the blueprint for how HBCUs can find success in cannabis. 

Due to Southern receiving federal funding and marijuana being federally illegal the university had to work with Illera Holistic in order to maintain its federal funding, according to Janana Snowden, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Department of Agriculture at Southern University and executive director at the Southern Institute of Medicinal Plants. 

Snowden oversees Southern University’s medical marijuana program, which she has been a part of since 2016, and she also teaches a course she calls Hemp 101, where students are taught about the industrial hemp plant that they also get to grow. 

“It’s a way to teach them about the plant,” Snowden told Blavity, adding that students are not involved in the medical cannabis program.

Her course offers students a chance to learn about the cannabis plant. She’s hoping to expand the hemp and cannabis course offerings at Southern to meet the high levels of enthusiasm from the students interested in learning about cannabis, agriculture and the endocannabinoid system.

“I’m working on it now — to offer a full curriculum and certification in cannabis even for those who may have graduated and want to come back,” Snowden said.

Since the school has embraced the cannabis industry, Snowden said they’ve seen a dramatic increase in students interested in taking more agriculture courses. 

“We’ve increased the number of students in the agricultural sciences department threefold,” she said. 

The impact of Southern being in the cannabis industry hasn’t just been felt on campus but in the community, too. 

“We want to make sure we pour back into the community we serve,” Snowden said. “We already know what past cannabis [legislation] has done for the Black community with sending Black people to jail. This is our chance to right that wrong.” 

It’s why Snowden has been adamant about not only educating the Black community about the health benefits of cannabis but the medical community as well, both hindered by societal stigmas on cannabis. 

“People want cannabis but they’re not educated enough on it,” Snowden said, addressing the challenges they’ve faced with getting the community to accept cannabis as a form of medicine. 

She said Ayo offers the state’s medical marijuana patients tinctures and topicals, and they plan to expand to include vape pens and gelatin-based chewables, also known as gummies. Snowden said it’s a learning curve to get people to understand how and why they should use a cannabis topical product, such as body salves, balms and lotions, or tinctures, which are oil-based cannabis-infused products that can be administered orally.

Chanda Macias, Ph.D., CEO of Ilera Holistic, told Blavity that while the program has been beneficial in some ways, there is still resistance from some physicians and patients.

“Our main challenge in Louisiana has been changing the hearts and minds of those who still see cannabis in a negative light. Louisiana is a Deep South, traditionally conservative state, and our evolving efforts for greater patient access must involve engaging and forming relationships with our regulators, state officials, and local communities,” Macias said. 

Macias stated that they’re aware the stigma on cannabis is the result of decades of propaganda, but they’re combating the stigma with their own education team.

“We understand this is often the results from generations of social stigma, criminalization and lack of accurate information,” Macias said. “This is one of the many reasons that Ilera Holistic employs a full-time sales and education team. We have a responsibility to patients and our peers across the state to educate not only about our products but the developments in our industry.”

Even with all these strides, Louisiana hasn’t made it easy for its Black residents to embrace medical cannabis due to the stigma on the plant and a lack of access to it. 

Louisiana is considered one of the most regulated states in the country when it comes to cannabis, and it has a ton of hurdles to overcome. Since Louisiana started the sale of medical marijuana in August 2019, the state has only two licensed growers, Southern University having one of those licenses, and nine dispensaries in the entire state, according to The Daily Advertiser. By comparison, California has more than 600 open dispensaries and delivery services, according to Leafly. 

“Some have to travel over an hour to get medicine from a dispensary,” Snowden said. 

Snowden has been in contact with other HBCUs, that hope to follow in Southern’s footsteps. She’s already had talks with Fort Valley State University and Morehouse College, both in Georgia, and other HBCUs in the South about how they could implement similar programs. 

“We’re trying to structure a [cannabis] program so other HBCUs can follow our blueprint,” Snowden said. “We feel like we can help other HBCUs get similar programs off the ground.” 

Macias echoed this sentiment lamenting the importance of offering mentorship so that the cannabis industry can become a place where Black folks can flourish.

“We are not only excited to inspire other HBCUs of what is possible but to act as mentors and guide them to participating in an industry that previously was not accessible for minorities and African Americans in particular,” Macias said.