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As Alabama continues to delay the rollout of a medical marijuana program, jobs in the field remain limited, as does research for future medicine.

“Alabama came a little bit late to the game,” said Desmond Mortley, the professor who leads the industrial hemp research program at Tuskegee University.

When the federal government decriminalized hemp in 2018, colleges jumped at the opportunity to research the plant while sticking to the tight restrictions that require less than 0.3% THC, the intoxicating ingredient.

Then, three years later came the legalization of medical cannabis for Alabama. The six Alabama schools with hemp programs were ready to expand their research to medical uses for the plant and prepare students for more jobs in the field. But lawsuits have tied up the rollout, and the state’s medical cannabis program still isn’t ready.

For now, Alabama’s hemp jobs are concentrated in growing and cultivation, said Mortley, research professor of plant and soil sciences. But the market is oversaturated, as the value of the plant for its CBD percentage has tanked, he said. And the state hasn’t yet greenlit cannabis cultivation for medical use.

So most of the jobs are elsewhere, in other states where more is happening with cannabis production and processing. Mortley said he gets calls from states such as Colorado and Kentucky, where leaders are looking to recruit Alabama students for research and other related jobs.

Once medical cannabis production is underway in Alabama, experts anticipate more in-state jobs in the field to open up. And students enrolled at institutions that have hemp research programs, such as Alabama State, another historically Black university, could be prime candidates.

Tuskegee hemp farm

A hemp farm at Tuskegee University, which a team of staff and student researchers share with Alabama State University.Ivy Thweatt

Alabama State also shares Tuskegee’s hemp farm and wants to expand to medical cannabis research. But without Alabama’s green light, those plans are held up, said Olufemi Ajayi, the director of the university’s industrial hemp and specialty crops program.

“The impact is trying to get students into the medical cannabis program and conducting research,” he said. “That is the barrier.”

Right now, the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission is on its third round of reviewing applications and awarding licenses for cultivators, processors, integrated facilities, transporters, dispensaries and testing laboratories, after rescinding licenses in June and August. Litigation by companies that have been denied licenses has delayed the process, and the exact timeline is unclear.

Hemp is a cousin of the marijuana plant, marked by a lower THC level to meet state agricultural requirements. If the plant ends up getting “hot,” meaning it has a higher concentration of THC, the state sends an inspector to burn or bury the crop, Mortley said. Hemp is sensitive to heat and different soil conditions, which is one aspect that Tuskegee researchers are still learning since they started studying the plant in 2019.

Tuskegee University has sought a medical cannabis cultivator license, but the commission has denied its application so far, Mortley said.

“What I’d love is for Tuskegee to get a license because one of the issues I’m having is I’m not allowed to look at other varieties just because of the THC limits,” Mortley said. “That’s a big hindrance for our research.”

Tuskegee University

Tuskegee University is one of six institutions in Alabama that has a state-licensed industrial hemp research program. (Hannah Denham / Denham

In 2019, Alabama launched a pilot program with farmers and colleges around the state, licensing them to grow and study hemp. Currently, six institutions are part of that program: Tuskegee, Alabama State, the University of Alabama, Troy University, Alabama A&M University and Auburn University. One of the key goals of that program overseen by the state Department of Agriculture and Industries was to focus on the plant’s medicinal properties.

For now, ASU’s researchers have focused on CBD. So has the University of Alabama, where researchers have looked at how CBD can be used as an antibacterial to develop future medicines as part of a partnership with a hemp company based in the Black Belt.

Researchers at UA, under Lukasz Ciesla, assistant professor of biological sciences, analyze the chemical makeup of hemp that the Wemp Company sources through a 20-acre farm in Dallas County. That company has also sought out permission from the state for a medical cannabis facility in Selma.

UA’s program has worked with about six undergraduate and graduate students since it launched in 2019, said Ciesla, and the Wemp Company has paid for the work of student researchers, too. But it’s been hard for them to find jobs in their field in-state, and only one currently works with hemp.

“The opportunities for students are quite scarce here, at least in Alabama,” Ciesla said. “There are not that many places where students who would like to stay and do something similar would just find the opportunities right away.”

Ivy Thweatt is in her first year as a Ph.D. candidate in ASU’s microbiology and hemp program. She first started researching hemp while working on her master’s degree in entomology at Auburn in 2021.

“There’s really not a whole lot of research and universities getting involved in it, so it was kind of hard to find a program,” she said. “My goal is to try to see how the microorganisms in the soil affect the plant growth and to see if they can help repel insects.”

After she graduates, she wants to teach at a university with her own lab. She assumes she’ll have to look for jobs in other states.

“I don’t really see any teaching jobs, especially researching hemp,” she said. “I was just kind of looking outside of Alabama just in case my plans do end up changing, because I would like to experience different places in my life and other research and different areas to grow crops.”

For the students involved in the hemp research programs, their highly technical skills are often best suited for jobs in academia. One of Mortley’s students is taking a faculty position teaching chemistry, he said.

Desmond Mortley

Desmond Mortley, who leads Tuskegee’s industrial hemp research program, works alongside two student researchers. From left to right: Candace Clark, Lakiah Clark, Mortley. (Hannah Denham / Denham

“It’s very difficult to imagine this person employed by just growers and processors, unless a processor has an analytical facility where they have the equipment where they actually process and analyze the hemp,” Ciesla said, noting that Oscity Labs in Foley is one of them.

Very few jobs are in processing because the number of growers far exceeds the number of processing facilities in Alabama – such as Arbor Vita8 in Phenix City and BastCore outside Montgomery.

“That’s why we have been getting inquiries about students who have expertise in this area, and marijuana employers looking to students to hire, especially to go places like Colorado,” Mortley said. “With Alabama getting into the medical marijuana, I’m sure those opportunities are going to increase for the production and processing jobs.”

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