Students study marijuana at new university course

February 25, 2019 GMT

MANSFIELD, Conn. (AP) — In a greenhouse at the bottom of Horsebarn Hill, a few plants stand much taller than the rest, the tops of their green, dissected leaves tickling the grow lights that feed them 18 hours of “sunshine” per day.

That still wasn’t enough for these hemp plants, which started to flower despite researchers’ best efforts to keep them “vegging out,” or growing in a vegetative state. Grown as part of UConn’s new course on the horticulture of cannabis — one of the first of its kind in the U.S. — these young, leggy weeds are now destined for the trash, in favor of plants that are still bud-free.


By the end of this semester’s inaugural class of “Horticulture of Cannabis: From Seed to Harvest,” more than 300 students will understand why cannabis growers would want to keep their young plants from flowering, how to pull that off and most everything else about the prime conditions of cultivating hemp.

They can also conduct some independent research on cannabis, overseen by plant science professor Gerald Berkowitz and his graduate student Peter Apicella, who walked through the greenhouse Thursday pulling unsatisfactory plants.

“This type of plant doesn’t care what we do. It’ll flower when it wants to,” Apicella said of the Otto 2 strain, a variety with long, thin leaves. “So it’s a little bit of luck.”

Most lessons of Berkowitz’ class would translate to growing marijuana, but he only grows strains of cannabis with little to no THC, the active ingredient that makes pot users high. For now, that includes the stubborn Otto 2 and strains called Wife and Abacus.

Berkowitz is now one of about 25 faculty members working to form the new Connecticut Cannabis Research and Innovation Center, which is co-sponsoring a seminar Monday on medical marijuana — its first public move.

“We’re really zooming along in terms of being a university that is developing scholarship on cannabis,” he said. “There’s a lot besides the class.

The university is searching for a director to lead the center, Berkowitz said.

The course itself is primarily taught by instructor Matthew DeBacco, who earned a master’s degree at UConn studying how to organically keep mold at bay in plants. It’s a continual challenge in the marijuana industry, so a few years ago, he started consulting with cannabis growers in Connecticut and Massachusetts, visiting their facilities to diagnose and solve whatever problems were hampering their hemp and medical marijuana.


Now, he’s teaching more than 300 students to think critically about those same issues. On Thursday, the lecture covered lighting: how cannabis reacts to LED, high pressure sodium and metal halide, how they compare on cost and sustainability and how to weigh every factor to pick the best light for each situation.

“It’s not just putting a seed in the ground. There’s that more difficult aspect to it,” DeBacco said. “So I’m trying to convey that to students without scaring them, because if I focus on all the negatives or the heartbreaks or the downfalls, they’ll never grow a plant.”

That’s the last thing DeBacco wants. He fell into horticulture in high school, growing giant pumpkins, and set two state records with gargantuan gourds nurtured in his Rocky Hill backyard.

But many more pumpkins brought him heartbreak, when they split or cracked or spoiled. Once, he was getting ready to bring his pumpkin to a weigh-off when he discovered a hole in the bottom, disqualifying the contestant.

“So all that work, all that season, all that care and nothing in the end,” DeBacco said. “You’ve got to enjoy the process, because you’re not guaranteed the end result, and that’s the same thing as cannabis here.”

In the lecture hall Thursday, senior biology major Rowan Goss and sophomore finance major Katherine Giguere said they’d been surprised at the level of detail involved in growing cannabis. A few rows ahead of them was 45-year-old Lauren Haff of Mansfield, an experienced vegetable and flower grower taking the course to expand her horizons.

They’re a fair sampling of the students filling the largest lecture hall on UConn’s campus.

Students hail from different schools and backgrounds. They’re curious about cannabis as a medicine or business or crop. And they’re all influenced, at least in part, by the changing politics of the plant.

Recreational marijuana is legal in 10 states, with Gov. Ned Lamont advocating for Connecticut to join the next green wave. Only three states still prohibit marijuana for medical purposes, and the 2018 farm bill legalized the production of hemp, a cannabis plant with little to no THC.

The last farm bill allowed universities to research hemp starting in 2014, but lifting the ban on the industry brings more energy and money to the field.

“It’s kind of exciting. It’s starting to actually be researched,” said Goss, who says cannabidiol, or CBD, has potential to treat anxiety, ADHD and other mental health conditions. “I think it’ll be really interesting to see in the next couple of years what they find.”

And the demand for research grows with each step the industry takes. Cannabis companies that were founded on the skill of illicit growers are now seeking qualified horticulturists; new studies are inspired by the cannabis genome, just sequenced in 2016; and federal funding has opened up around hemp.

“We need academia. We need scholarship. We need lights turned on in a field where it hasn’t been peer-reviewed. There hasn’t been public information. There haven’t been impartial studies,” said Berkowitz, the secondary instructor of his course. “It’s been dark, and we need to pull the curtains back.”

It’s some welcome happenstance for Apicella, who conducts molecular biology research in Berkowitz’s lab.

He’s been interested in horticulture since college-preparatory school, to the chagrin of a guidance counselor who told him, “There’s no health insurance in farming.”

After another 18 months in graduate school, he plans to work for a medical marijuana business.

“It’s so cool that this whole legitimate industry is just taking off and right when I’m graduating college,” he said. “It’s like, really convenient.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘What are you going to do with a horticulture degree?’ Like, this. Something that’s very lucrative.”




Information from: Hartford Courant,