The United States’ South includes Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia, according to the federal government.
Most of America has experienced ugly history, but this region’s history has been one of the harshest. The South has experienced slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, civil rights demonstrations, and black codes, which even further delayed society’s push for equality. For these reasons and others, the advancement of cannabis legalization and research in the South deserves recognition, especially when led by Black people.
Louisiana State University and Alabama State University are showing that a change is coming. Louisiana State University launched their Therapeutic Cannabis Program, and Alabama State University also recently started to allow medicinal cannabis research. Though neither offer degree or certification programs, allowing for research is a sign of good faith. Wellcana Group in Louisiana and Cannabis Group South LLC are leading the change in partnership with the universities.
The Past – Cannabis and Slave History in the South
In most U.S. history lessons, students are taught that slaves were forced to grow and harvest crops like cotton, tobacco, and sugar. But a lot of American history leaves out the early role of hemp and cannabis cultivation and how it relates to enslaved African Americans. Much of American history is whitewashed, so it’s easy to forget how hemp crops saved early settlements in Virginia, Massachusetts Bay, and throughout the South. Additionally, the country’s early cultivation power was concentrated in the South, where large numbers of enslaved African Americans were forced to plant, grow, harvest, and process hemp.
James F. Hopkins confirmed in his 1951 book, A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky, “on the hemp farm and in the hemp factories the need for laborers was filled to a large extent by the use of … slaves.”
The Present – Cannabis Legalization in the South
Though the South was an early adopter of cannabis/hemp cultivation, it has largely been the last to legalize/decriminalize. As of May 2021, just two jurisdictions in the South have legalized cannabis for adult consumption: Washington D.C. and Virginia, but legalization there still carries restrictions.
In Virginia, dispensaries are not anticipated until 2024 but residents who are 21 or older can grow up to four plants (two mature, two immature). In D.C, medical and adult consumption are legal, but adult-use sales are still outlawed. Adults can only legally purchase cannabis if they have a medical card (although the rise of cannabis “gifting” services in the District has somewhat addressed those concerns).
But as for the remaining southern states and their cannabis priorities:
- Alabama – illegal
- South Carolina – illegal
- Arkansas – medicinally legal
- Delaware – medicinally legal
- Florida – medicinally legal
- Georgia – only CBD oil is legal
- Kentucky – only CBD oil is legal
- Louisiana – medicinally legal
- Maryland – medicinally legal
- Mississippi – medicinally legal
- North Carolina – illegal
- Oklahoma – medicinally legal
- Tennessee – illegal
- Texas – only CBD oil is legal
- West Virginia – medicinally legal
Involvement of Higher Education
Though the South has been very slow in its cannabis legalization efforts, as highlighted above, two states — Louisiana and Alabama — are allowing cultivators to partner with colleges/universities. In Louisiana, Wellcana Group, a fully integrated and diverse Louisiana biopharmaceutical company, is contracted with Louisiana State University (LSU) to cultivate and process hemp.
“In the state of Louisiana, LSU is one of two licensed by the state to cultivate and manufacture cannabis,” said Ra’mon Richardson, Lead Cannabis Cultivator with Wellcana Group, adding that, “I may be the first African American to cultivate and process medical cannabis [in the South].” A powerful statement made by a Black man, in the South, on the same soil where Black people were oppressed and enslaved through black codes and the 13th Amendment.
In Alabama, Cannabis South Group LLC (founded by Matthew Ibidapo), one of the first Black-owned industrial hemp companies, was awarded a license to cultivate hemp as a partner of Alabama State University, which is an HBCU (historically black college or university). Together, Cannabis South Group and Alabama State will work to establish the infrastructure needed for future farmers, entrepreneurs, and retailers.
These strides are important efforts that will shape our future through research that will lead to the further removal of Reefer Madness-era stigmas. These partnerships are also important because as shown above, the South’s reform efforts frequently carry restrictions like banning smokable consumption options — but rules that would ban smokable cannabis while allowing the smoking of tobacco are oppressive and overly restrictive.
The Work Continues
Wellcana Group has a Black lead cultivator, and Cannabis South Group is owned by a Black man — and these are two of the only companies that have been awarded cultivation licenses in the Deep South. Cannabis is certainly not legal in Alabama or in Louisiana, just as a restrictive medicine, but through LSU, Alabama State, and their partnerships with these two cultivation companies, a change is coming — and the South needs it. The South needs a massive change of pace with regard to freedoms, liberties, and reparations.
These licenses, partnerships, and efforts serve as powerful destigmatization tools that will lead to legalization and hopefully, a more balanced field for business opportunities in the cannabis industry. Education is key, and in a region where enslaved African Americans were beaten and worse for reading and trying to learn, thrown in jail through black codes, and robbed of their human and civil rights, historical efforts like these showcase accomplishments that enslaved ancestors could have only dreamt of.
Representation is also an important piece of this puzzle: Black students attending these colleges and seeing these Black men grow cannabis is important because for many, any Black man or Black person touching cannabis — that leads to jail. Many of their family members are in jail because they touched cannabis and many want to have careers in cannabis but are in a region that doesn’t support it.
Like with every other civil and human rights issue, the South needs to join the rest of the country and do what’s right: free the people by freeing the plant.
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