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UConn Students Experiment With Classroom Cannabis

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Ryan Caron King
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Connecticut Public Radio
Peter Apicella, a graduate student in Gerald Berkowitz's lab, says part of the reason there's so much interest in the course is simple: cannabis means money.

It’s something you might expect to see on a poster in a dorm. Bright green leaves, fanned and serrated.

It’s cannabis. Except today, it’s center stage on a table in the biggest lecture hall on UConn’s campus. But first, it had to get there.

“I drive a UConn van into the middle of campus and I unload all the cannabis plants into the largest lecture hall,” said Madison Blake, a junior horticulture major at UConn, who brought these hemp plants from greenhouse to classroom table.

“There’s a lot of ‘oohing and aahing’ generally. Especially when you’re, like, carrying them on carts.”

Hemp and marijuana are both types of cannabis. But chemically, they’re different. Hemp has cannabidiol or CBD, but not enough THC to produce the high induced by marijuana.

Hemp is used in everything from beauty products to clothing. And UConn is teaching a whole class on growing just this one kind of plant.

Blake is one of around 300 students taking the course. Some days they study seed selection and lighting. On others, it’s irrigation and nutrients.

Instructor Matthew DeBacco said the goal is to present a scientifically-backed way to grow while dispelling myths that, for years, may have passed between illicit growers.

“Friends of friends,” DeBacco said. “Sharing information that may have absolutely no scientific basis.”

DeBacco wants the research-backed processes students get in this class to be directly infused into the cannabis industry. He said the lessons students learn on hemp are directly transferable to marijuana.

And markets for hemp and marijuana are growing. So far, ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational pot. Others, like Connecticut and New York, are considering it. And 33 states have legalized medical marijuana.

Hemp growing in a UConn greenhouse.
Credit Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio
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Connecticut Public Radio
UConn has been growing hemp in a campus greenhouse for several years.

Senior communication major Michael Milius thinks taking this class could help him find a job.

“I see on the news a lot that cannabis and marijuana are becoming more prevalent, becoming legal across the country. And I figured if this does turn out to be something that a market pops up, maybe it would be good for me to know how to grow,” Milius said.

Gerald Berkowitz is a plant biologist and a professor at UConn who’s helping to teach the course. He said another goal is just to break down stigma.

“There’s a certain culture associated with cannabis,” Berkowitz said. “I myself, am a Grateful Deadhead.”

Berkowitz said years of that culture, combined with tight federal research regulations, means there’s been little study of cannabis.

“There’s lack of peer review,” he said. "There’s lack of scholarship. There’s lack of sharing of information.”

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Credit Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio
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Connecticut Public Radio
Apicella shows off a hemp plant under the hot buzzing lights of a campus greenhouse. ''More states are legalizing recreational marijuana,'' he said. ''That means growth, that means jobs.''

Berkowitz and his students have been running controlled experiments on hemp at UConn for around three years.  And as more academics get into the field, he’s hopeful courses like this will make cannabis research blossom.

“If we have students who treat the course as seriously as we’re offering it,” Berkowitz said, “I think that we will have a situation where people in myriad fields, academic fields, are going to feel legitimized.”

Student Madison Blake said her work in the campus greenhouse has made her curious about maybe exploring cannabis as a career.

“I don’t know if that’s 100 percent what I want to do with my whole life, but I’m definitely interested in the plant and where it can go from here,” Blake said.

Because when it comes to career, and cannabis, University of Connecticut students like Blake are still figuring it all out.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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