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As UConn Begins Training Its First Crop of Cannabis-Growing Students, the State's Farmers Want the Shackles Taken Off the Industry

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Hemp farms similar to this one in Hebron, New York, could begin production in Connecticut as soon as this year.

Cannabis in Connecticut may one day have a new label: locally grown.

The first medical marijuana-growing licenses in Connecticut were issued in 2014, but there are signs cannabis cultivation is moving beyond medical-oriented facilities. This semester, the University of Connecticut at Storrs is offering a class on growing cannabis. In addition, federal regulations prohibiting the growing of hemp, cannabis that has a THC level of less than 0.3 percent, have been loosened and there is a push by Connecticut farmers to legalize hemp production in the state. Here’s a look at these recent developments.

In the classroom

When news broke that the University of Connecticut was offering a course called Horticulture of Cannabis: From Seed to Harvest, more than 350 students enrolled — an enormous class size even by UConn’s standards, where large lecture courses are not uncommon.

However, the class taught by Matt DeBacco and Gerald Berkowitz was a far cry from the stoner’s paradise some may have been hoping for.

“This is a true college, scholarship-based course,” DeBacco says. He adds that the course plots the life of the plant, “starting from the seed or clone and working its way through the entire growth cycle.” Students also receive hands-on instruction with the plants in the school’s grow lab.

The serious nature of the course, which was offered without prerequisites, caused some students to drop out, but it is precisely its seriousness that makes it so unique. “This class is absolutely the first in the country regarding growing cannabis,” says Berkowitz, adding that he sees the course and the research linked to it as a way for Connecticut to have an important role in the study of the crop. “There’s a $7 billion cannabis industry in California. … It’s a big, big agriculture commodity and the state is generating revenue, but the University of California system is not moving ahead with courses and research programs. So, Connecticut has a chance to be a national leader here.”

The course will be offered again next semester, and DeBacco and Berkowitz also hope to offer more advanced courses. In addition, Berkowitz is spearheading research of the plant at the molecular level at the university.

Berkowitz was inspired to start the course after taking a group of students to visit a medical marijuana grow facility a few years ago. On the trip, he learned that there was a need for academically trained growers. “They were hiring people who grew pot in the basement,” he says. He learned that the company was interested in establishing ties with a university to study cannabis-growing. Berkowitz applied for and received a grant from the company to begin researching cannabis at UConn.

“Undergraduate students were lining up at the door to do research,” Berkowitz says.

He realized there would be demand for a course on campus and recruited DeBacco, who had been consulting on disease control with a medical marijuana company in Connecticut. The course is focused on the cultivation of hemp, but Berkowitz says, “from a horticulture basis, it doesn’t really matter if you have THC in your plant or not.”

As DeBacco prepared the course, he developed and wrote many of his own materials, as there is a great deal of unscientific information out there about growing hemp. “The goal here is to provide accurate information and tease out some of the things that might be wrong or just simply not accurate as far as what it takes to grow the plant,” he says. Students who take the course will be more attractive to companies that grow hemp and medical marijuana, DeBacco says. “While it is only one course, I’m sure the industry can appreciate that if someone did take this course, it would give them some credentials. At least they heard some of the correct information.”

On the Farm

“I spend between an hour or two every day talking about hemp,” says Bryan Hurlburt, executive director at the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association, a nonprofit that promotes farming in the state.

Hemp, the non-active cannabis crop, has long been legal in the U.S. but growing it commercially has been banned since the 1930s. The federal 2014 Farm Bill created provisions to allow states to establish pilot hemp-growing programs and the 2018 Farm Bill made hemp a legal agricultural product, but state legislation along with regulation and oversight of the crop are necessary for its legal production. Well over half of states have legalized industrial hemp farming.

The Connecticut Farm Bureau has been lobbying to pass such legislation in Connecticut. “What we’re trying to do is legalize the entire industry, allow for hemp to be a legal product to grow, to process, to sell,” Hurlburt says. The effort got a boost in March when a pair of bills to allow commercial hemp cultivation and commercialization seemed poised for approval. Farmers are hopeful they can plant seeds in June, when the next growing season begins.

Historically, hemp was cultivated for a variety of products, from clothes to paper, and there is growing demand for its use in products that use CBD oil. Many expect hemp-growing in the U.S. to be a multibillion-dollar industry. In states like Kentucky, farmers are eyeing it as a potential replacement for tobacco.

The Connecticut Farm Bureau also supports the legal growing of recreational marijuana, but Hurlburt says “they’re very different discussions. Hemp is a more straightforward conversation. Marijuana is a much more difficult conversation. Our position is that if marijuana is going to be legalized for recreational adult use in the state of Connecticut, that Connecticut farmers should have the opportunity to grow marijuana and sell it. That’s a longer conversation, and we recognize that.”

Farmers are ready and willing to start planting hemp, though it is not clear yet how many. “It is going to be a new market, so some people may or may not have the ability to transition their farming operations or their business plans to grow hemp, but we’re certainly going to see a bunch of people try to do it,” he says. “I’m hopeful that at the end of the year the Connecticut Farm Bureau can host a forum on hemp and talk about what worked, what didn’t work and what can be done to continue to grow the industry.”

This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.

The senior writer at Connecticut Magazine, Erik is the co-author of Penguin Random House’s “The Good Vices” and author of “Buzzed” and “Gillette Castle.” He is also an adjunct professor at WCSU’s MFA Program and Quinnipiac University