Southern Illinois University starts marijuana, hemp research

(Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP) -- Southern Illinois University is creating new programs for students who want to know more about marijuana.

The school announced last week that it's creating programs at the Carbondale campus to study medical marijuana and industrial hemp. Officials hope the programs will give students and farmers a chance to earn a new certificate in the subject.

Officials have been planning for the new programs for years, said Karen Midden, interim dean of agricultural sciences.

"We're getting this request and input from stakeholders, who are reaching out to us, telling us they need the science," Midden said. "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."

In joining the growing number of colleges around the country to offer courses related to marijuana, Southern Illinois University's interdisciplinary program in cannabis science will be a mixture of agriculture and plant biology with courses in subjects ranging from chemistry to business to engineering.

"Both of these crops -- hemp and medicinal cannabis -- show benefits in numerous areas, all the way from health and quality of life to having another natural fiber that can be used in so many ways," Midden said. "We want a program to support this emerging industry. They need the science we can provide, and we are positioning ourselves to help."

Southern Illinois University researchers already have approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration to grow hemp. School leaders said they hope to begin planting in the spring on a 5-acre parcel of land, which will be split into a series of individual test plots to study specific research questions, such as the crops' optimal growing conditions and environmental impact.

Illinois has permitted the sale of medical marijuana since 2015, but only to patients with a few dozen documented conditions. Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation in August that expands access to medical cannabis and permits its use as a painkiller. Rauner also lifted a state ban on planting hemp.