University of Illinois Plans Cannabis Research Center

DPI has begun a search for an executive director and researchers.

This story was republished with approval from Crain’s Chicago Business and written by John Pletz

Discovery Partners Institute, the University of Illinois research center underway in the South Loop, has high hopes to launch a marijuana research facility.

DPI has begun a search for an executive director and researchers, and it has support from the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois. But it doesn’t yet have funding commitments from either one for a project that likely will need tens of millions to become a reality.

The cannabis research institute is the first significant effort by the city and state to build on Chicago’s critical mass in the marijuana industry. The city is home to several of the largest U.S. marijuana companies – including Cresco Labs, Green Thumb Industries, Verano, and PharmaCann – which employ thousands of workers. Since legalizing recreational marijuana three years ago, sales have grown to about $1.5 billion.

The University of Illinois sees opportunities to draw on its strengths in agriculture, genomics and medicine to study topics ranging from marijuana production to the health impacts of cannabis.

“It’s a natural for us to be a gathering point,” says Bill Jackson, executive director of DPI. “It’s an industry that Illinois wants to win in. It’s an industry that’s going to be sizable.”

Because cannabis is federally illegal, there hasn’t been as much research as in other fields. Universities are worried about putting their federal research grants for other projects at risk by working with cannabis. But recent federal legislation loosens some of the restrictions, making it easier for researchers to get approval to work with cannabis.

A handful of universities have marijuana research programs, including the University of Mississippi, UCLA, and the University of California San Diego.

“Our intent is to be the best in that space,” Jackson says.

DPI is a research center for the U of I system that will be built in the South Loop, which still is in the formative stages. Construction on its facilities is scheduled to begin in 2024, but it has offices downtown.

The idea of a housing cannabis research facility at DPI has been in discussion for about nine months, but funding is still up in the air.

“It’s not a wish and a prayer,” Jackson says. “It will happen. We’ve had long conversations with the city and the state.”

Jackson didn’t specify how much money will be required but says “$50 million wouldn’t be a bad target. Predominantly, funding will come from grants or independent groups.”

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