Southern Illinois University to create medical marijuana certificate program, launch new research into industrial hemp

Southern Illinois University is creating new programs to study industrial hemp and medical marijuana with the hope of offering a new certificate for students and farmers, school officials announced Friday.

The interdisciplinary program in cannabis science is spearheaded by researchers in SIU’s colleges of science and agricultural sciences, school officials said. Areas of study would blend agriculture and plant biology with courses in chemistry, engineering, business and ecology.

The idea, according to the university, is to provide rigorous, science-based instruction for aspiring cultivators and technicians, as well as business acumen to farmers seeking insight into how they can grow their enterprises in the burgeoning market.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has given its approval for SIU researchers to grow hemp. School leaders say they have a 5-acre parcel to use as a hemp research field and hope to begin planting in the spring.

The certificate program would be in medicinal cannabis production. Program leaders would need backing from the Illinois Board of Higher Education to proceed but officials say many courses they want to offer already exist in the SIU catalog.

Karen Midden, interim dean of agricultural sciences, said planning for the new programs has been ongoing for years and is in response to growing demand in southern Illinois.

“We’re getting this request and input from stakeholders, who are reaching out to us, telling us they need the science,” Midden said in a statement. “But we’re also getting it from students — current and potential students — that they would like to have programs to prepare them for work in these areas.”

Should SIU get its program up and running, the university seems poised to implement it right as more colleges throughout the country are embracing academic study of the science, business and agriculture of the marijuana industry.

Northern Michigan University was the first to establish a four-year degree in the field, launching a medicinal plant chemistry undergraduate program through the chemistry department in 2017. University of Connecticut this fall is offering an undergraduate course in the science of cannabis horticulture. Pennsylvania State University was among a group of area schools recently approved to study medical marijuana and also to launch an industrial hemp research pilot program. Access to medical marijuana has rapidly expanded across the country. Thirty-one states now allow it.

Illinois has allowed the sale of medical marijuana since 2015 but strictly limited its use to patients with only a few dozen documented conditions. In August, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation to dramatically expand access to medical cannabis and permit its use as a painkiller, an alternative to powerful opioids. The measure also eased restrictions on those applying for state authorization to use medicinal cannabis. Prior to that, the Tribune reported that cultivators throughout the state were bolstering their growing capabilities in anticipation of more people having access to the drug.

Also in August, Rauner signed a bill lifting a state ban on planting hemp as a crop. Unlike its medicinal cousin, industrial hemp fibers are used to make products such as paper, clothing, animal feed and human foods, and contain a fraction of a percent of the psychoactive THC.

Karla Gage, assistant professor of weed science and agricultural systems, said the SIU hemp field likely will be segmented into smaller plots to explore specific research questions about cultivating hemp, such as how the plant can be incorporated into existing crop rotations, what its optimal growing conditions are and what impact it has on the environment.

Jim Garvey, interim vice chancellor for research, said initial tests show the soil at the SIU hemp field shares characteristics with soil throughout southern Illinois and will enable researchers to share their findings with local growers. “We will also be able to learn about how to minimize soil erosion and ensure sustainable harvests,” Garvey said.

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