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BATON ROUGE, La. — Agriculture is an intimate part of the story of blacks in America. The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 and the Morrill Act of 1890 (Agricultural College Act) allowed for the expansion of land grant schools. It is the Morrill Acts that helped to pave the way for the birth of historically black colleges and universities.

Dr. Janana Snowden is lead researcher of the medical marijuana program, of the largest HBCU in the country, Southern University and A&M College.

It is a love of growing both plants and the minds of students that inspires Dr. Snowden’s work but her interest in agriculture is due to a family legacy.

“My grandparents were sharecroppers, so I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors and I’m glad that we are coming back to this realm where people are understanding the importance of agriculture,” says Dr. Snowden.

Southern University was founded in 1880 and designated as a land-grant university in 1890. It satisfied federal provisions of supporting higher education in Louisiana in a segregated system.

Over 130 years passed since the agricultural inception of HBCU’s, Southern University continues on it’s legacy in a surprising way. Southern University is the first HBCU to launch a line of THC products as part of an innovative future frontier of agriculture. Southern University holds one of two cannabis licenses in the State of Louisiana. Illera Holisic Healthcare is Southern’s partner for marijuana research.

Dr. Chanda Macias is the CEO of Illera Holistic Healthcare, New Orleans’ Zulu Queen of 2020 and says “what we have seen with aggregated data over the course of five to ten years, is that there is anecdotal research that shows that medical cannabis can help medical ailments and conditions.”

Hidden a few miles from the university is an off-site marijuana-growing facility that is expanding fast. The marijuana grown is used to manufacture a product line called AYO. AYO has different products designed to treat an array of illnesses and conditions that includes anxiety, Alzheimer’s, cancers and autism.

Southern University and their partner Illera have produced the medicine for about a year, but the research behind AYO is much older. No students are allowed on site of the facility. Students instead, have an opportunity to learn about the research in a traditional classroom setting from Dr. Snowden.

“I’ve converted one of my classes into a hemp class. We talk about cannabis and the endocannabinoid system. The students learn about how the human body naturally produces cannabanoids and how we supplement the cannabanoids within the body with medicinal cannabis to treat ailments that are often linked to an imbalance. This a way students can think outside of the box. I have them to come up with different ways on how they would utilize this plant,” explains Dr. Snowden.

Dr. Chanda Macias says that Illera’s products are part of a larger discussion on how African Americans are affected by marijuana and the laws that surround it. She says it is important for the country to legalize marijuana because there is no compelling evidence that supports the argument that marijuana is addictive or that it is as detrimental as legal opioids.

Dr. Chanda says that marijuana legalization is increasingly contemplated by lawmakers because of three main reasons: States are seeing the potential profits of being part of a billion dollar industry. Medical patients are seeing cannabis in a new way, compared to the dangers of prescribed opioids. Advocates see marijuana prohibition as being a pipeline to inequity, in terms of incarceration; blacks are four times more likely to be incarcerated because of marijuana possession.

Dr. Chanda and Dr. Snowden are looking at a changing perception about cannabis usage and they believe that African Americans and HBCU’s should be at the ground level of a money-making future industry giant.

Dr. Snowden says, “we want to remove a negative stigma that has been associated with this plant for so long.”

“The medical marijuana industry has evolved so rapidly and so when we think about how it’s being legalized in over 30 different states in less than ten years, we want to make sure that African Americans are included in that narrative in terms of economic development,” says Dr. Chanda Macias.