The Southern University Agricultural Center could have a medical marijuana program in production by the end of the year.

The center plans to issue a request in mid-March for a vendor to run the medical marijuana program.

Janana Snowden, director of Southern’s Institute of Medicinal Plants, said the contract would be with a single vendor, with the demonstrated ability to run a medical marijuana contract. The contract will be for five years. The initial investment is expected to be between $5 million and $7 million. Southern recently formed the medicinal plant institute to handle its medical marijuana program.

Marijuana would be grown at Southern’s agricultural experiment station, which is located five miles away from campus. Snowden said local law enforcement has approved the location and it will be secured with 24-hour surveillance.

Snowden and Southern officials discussed the medical marijuana program at a town hall meeting Thursday at the Ag Center. The meeting attracted a crowd ranging from students in T-shirts to professionals in business suits.

Bobby R. Phills, chancellor of the Ag Center and dean of the College of Agriculture, said he’s already met with 30 vendors who expressed interest.

“One of the cornerstones of any land grant university is the ability to educate and train and conduct research,” Phills said. “We’re pleased to have an opportunity to be one of the licensees for this great state venture.”

The Legislature passed a bill in 2016 giving the Southern and LSU ag centers a monopoly on the medical marijuana business. But they won't be selling anything smokable. State law requires the medicine to be in a liquid, such as an oil or spray; capsules or pills; gelatin-based chewables; topical applications; trans-dermal patches; or suppositories.

Only patients suffering from conditions such as HIV, cancer, seizures, epilepsy, Crohn's disease and multiple sclerosis will be eligible for medical marijuana.

Any vendor who applies to run the medical marijuana program will go through a background check, looking at their criminal history, sources of funding and other ventures the owners are involved in. “It’s very similar to applying for a gaming license,” said Winston Decuir Jr., attorney for the Southern University Board of Supervisors.

Dr. Rani Whitfield, a local family medicine doctor, said medical marijuana has great potential as a treatment for some medical issues. Whitfield said he attended a medical conference in Denver where doctors talked about a 5-year-old girl who was suffering from a disorder that caused her to have up to 50 seizures a day. After 20 months of taking cannabis oil, the girl was having a handful of seizures a month and was able to talk and feed herself.

“I don’t want to say it’s a wonder drug,” Whitfield said. “More research needs to be done, but this is a great opportunity for Southern University to do that research.”

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.