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UConn cannabis cultivation class could be nation’s first

December 29, 2018

Collect college credit for growing weed? The dreams of generations of potheads are coming true at UConn, starting in January.

In the upcoming semester, UConn undergraduate students — hundreds of them — will study how to grow cannabis, though not necessarily the kind that can get people high. Professors believe theirs is the nation’s first university course on the horticulture of cannabis and several others in the industry could not identify another one.

“It’s either rare or unique,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group.

Over 400 eager students are enrolled in the new class, said Gerald Berkowitz, a plant molecular biologist at the University of Connecticut who is teaching the course at the main Storrs campus. The course will apply agricultural science - germination, grafting, irrigation, plant diseases - to cannabis from “seed to harvest,” the syllabus released Friday says.

The course isn’t designed to help potheads grow a stash. On the contrary, in “Sustainable Plant and Soil Systems 3995,” students will cultivate hemp cannabis, not the marijuana strains that contain high levels of THC, the psychoactive compound.

It’s fitting, as UConn was founded as an agricultural college.

The course is part of a push at UConn and many other universities to work more closely with employers. Connecticut has recently expanded its medicinal marijuana program and lawmakers who favor full legalization are preparing a strong effort in the upcoming legislative session.

Berkowitz said he decided to start the course after visiting the greenhouses of Cure A Leaf, a marijuana grower in Simsbury. Company executives told him their head growers were self-taught experts - the kind who grew weed in their basements as rebellious teens.

“It was pretty much a no-brainer to go the university and go ‘let’s jump on this,’” Berkowitz said. “There is a virtually a black hole of cannabis horticulture in the United States. There is no refereed science about all the claims people make about products. None of it is subjected to scholarship… For a university professor, it’s pretty clear we need to turn the lights on.”

To that end, universities across the United States have offered courses on marijuana, but teaching students the best ways to grow cannabis represents a new frontier.

Possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana is an infraction in Connecticut, not a misdemeanor. Growing marijuana, the psychoactive kind, remains illegal here for all but a small handful of licensed producers.

But the 2014 federal Farm Bill gave universities permission to grow hemp cannabis for research purposes. And like the plants UConn students will soon grow, the cannabis industry is flourishing. The 2018 Farm Bill, signed by President Donald Trump last week, expanded legal hemp production to farmers.

Connecticut farmers want in on the action and are pushing Governor-elect Ned Lamont to help them get started. And when they need cannabis horticulturalists, UConn will have them.

Other colleges are getting on board, too. Northern Michigan University launched a four-year degree program in 2017 in “medicinal plant chemistry.” Other universities, including Harvard, the University of Denver, Vanderbilt and Ohio State, offer marijuana policy and law classes.

And the industry fully backs turning students on to cannabis studies. Berkowitz received two grants for several hundred thousand dollars from cannabis companies to support his research and the class, he said.

In class, students will hear from cannabis businesses, too. Matthew Debacco, a former UConn graduate student who has worked in the industry, will co-teach the class with Berkowitz. Lecturers will include medical growers, a vendor of cannabinoids — various derivations of the plant — and a Canadian marijuana venture capitalist.

Hemp is already growing at UConn for undergrad and graduate research projects, said Berkowitz, whose lab has blossomed in popularity with the new addition. Trending in High Times magazine does wonders for a plant biologist’s name recognition, Berkowitz quips.

It helps, too, when his research students are getting jobs growing and testing cannabis after graduation.

Canada, Massachusetts, and nine other states have legalized adult-use marijuana without a medical reason. Connecticut’s leading opponent of full legalization said he doesn’t oppose the horticultural class.

“Generally speaking, if it is a course to teach hemp, which is a recognized agricultural product, then I do not see an issue,” said state Rep. Vin Candelora, R-North Branford. “With the debate we are having around the legalization of marijuana, obviously, it is going to be a politically charged course.”

Candelora understands that the skills students learn could be used to grow weed on their own. But he said, “We hope people follow the law.”

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