Southern University medical marijuana deal

Southern University President and Chancellor Ray Belton signs an amended contract for the school’s medical marijuana program with Ilera Holistic Healthcare, a division of Pennsylvania-based marijuana company Ilera Healthcare. The company, owned in part by CEO Greg Rochlin, right, bought a majority interest in Southern’s partner, Advanced Biomedics.

After lengthy delays in Southern University’s medical marijuana program, the school and a private company it hired to run the growing operation planted its first seeds of the crop this week after winning regulatory approval from the state.

The university said it is still on track to meet its timelines and have the product available to patients this fall.

Ray Belton, Southern University System’s president and chancellor, called it a “historic week” for the school. The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, which regulates marijuana growers, gave final approval to Southern and its partner, Ilera Healthcare, on Monday. The firm began planting seeds on Tuesday at the Baker facility.

Southern is one of two universities in Louisiana — along with LSU — allowed by law to grow medical marijuana as part of a program originally passed by lawmakers in 2015. Both schools have hired private companies to handle the growing of the product.

Southern is also the only historically black university in the country to be involved in growing medical marijuana, which has put it in the spotlight in recent years as it stepped into the industry.

'Right the ship': Southern University's marijuana partner gets new owner who promises production progress

But the university faced repeated delays in getting its program off the ground after signing a deal with its original partner, Advanced Biomedics.

That company was owned primarily by a Carencro horse breeder, Carrol Castille, and was selected after offering Southern the most money of any bidder, even though it was not ranked first by a selection committee. After months of delays and infighting at the company, including lawsuits among owners over who had rightful control of the firm, Castille sold his majority stake to Ilera Holistic Healthcare.

At that point, last November, the company had made no discernible progress, and Ilera started from scratch, saying it would have product on the shelves in the early second quarter of 2019. That date was pushed back to the fall.

Numerous delays in both Southern’s and LSU’s marijuana operations have left patients without access to the drug, years after being authorized by lawmakers. LSU’s partner, GB Sciences, has feuded publicly with the state agriculture department over regulations, and most recently said it would have product to pharmacies by May before delaying it to an unspecified date.

Southern said it is set to receive more than $6 million over five years as part of the deal with Ilera. The facility will employ about 40 people who will grow, manufacture and distribute medical marijuana.

Louisiana law prohibits smokable marijuana, and only allows certain forms including tinctures and, because of a recently passed law, inhalers. Patients with a list of health conditions including intractable pain, glaucoma, cancer, seizure disorders and more can access medical marijuana by getting a “recommendation” from an approved doctor.

Nine medical marijuana pharmacies in different parts of the state will sell the product, and a 10th could open later in an area of high demand.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com