The green, serrated leaves of cannabis are something you might expect to see on a college campus — perhaps grown secretly in a dorm, or emblazoned across clothing of students who support marijuana legalization — but certainly not within a college classroom.
At the University of Connecticut (UConn), cannabis is taking center stage in the biggest lecture hall on campus.
The university is teaching a whole class focused on growing just this one kind of plant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's a popular class — around 300 students have signed up.
In the class, students have classes on topics such as seed selection, lighting, irrigation, and plant nutrients in order to learn how to best grow cannabis. It's a skill that some students, like senior communication major Michael Milius, think may prove useful in their careers.
"I see on the news a lot that cannabis and marijuana are becoming more prevalent, becoming legal across the country," Milius said. "I figured if this does turn out to be something that, like, a market pops up, maybe it would be good for me to know how to grow."
Students aren't learning about growing marijuana directly, but are instead learning to grow another type of cannabis: hemp. Though hemp and marijuana are both types of cannabis, chemically, they're different.
Like marijuana, hemp has cannabidiol (CBD), but unlike marijuana, it does not have enough tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to produce a high.
The market for hemp is growing. Due to its ability to create durable, breathable textiles, hemp is often used in clothing. Hemp is also used in beauty products, because moisturizing properties within hemp seed oil. There are even hemp food products like hemp milk or hemp protein powder.
The lessons students learn on hemp are directly transferable to marijuana, where the market is also growing. Ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational pot, and medical marijuana is legalized in an additional 23 states. More states, like Connecticut and New York, are currently considering recreational marijuana legalization.
Course instructor, Matthew DeBacco, said the goal is to dispel myths and information "that may have absolutely no scientific basis" about growing the plant. For years, bad information may have passed between illicit growers, he said, and he wants to present a scientifically-backed way to grow.
Scientifically, there's not much information about cannabis.
Gerald Berkowitz, a plant biologist and UConn professor who is helping to teach the course, blames the lack of cannabis studies on tight federal research regulations and negative stigma around the plant.
"There's a certain culture associated with cannabis. I myself, am a Grateful Deadhead," he said.
For about three years, Berkowitz and his students have been running controlled experiments on hemp at UConn. He wants to see more academics getting into cannabis research.
"There's lack of peer review. There's lack of scholarship. There's lack of sharing of information," he said.
This course could help legitimize the field of cannabis research, he added, as long as students "treat the course as seriously as we're offering it."
Madison Blake, a junior majoring in horticulture, said she has an interest in 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," she said.
When it comes to their careers — and cannabis — UConn students like Blake are still figuring it all out.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A new program at the University of Connecticut is offering its students a chance to experiment with cannabis in the classroom. Patrick Skahill of Connecticut Public Radio reports that UConn is offering classes about the science behind growing cannabis, and student enrollment has, well, lit up.
PATRICK SKAHILL, BYLINE: 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, when it will be center stage on a table in the biggest lecture hall on UConn's campus. But first, it has to get there.
MADISON BLAKE: I drive a UConn van into the middle of campus, and I unload all of the cannabis plants into the largest lecture hall (laughter).
SKAHILL: Madison Blake is a junior horticulture major at UConn in Storrs, Conn. Today, she'll transport these hemp plants from the greenhouse.
BLAKE: There's a lot of ooh-ing and ah-ing generally, especially when you're, like, carrying them on carts.
SKAHILL: 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's teaching a whole class on growing just this one kind of plant.
MATTHEW DEBACCO: All right. Welcome, everyone.
SKAHILL: Madison Blake is one of around 300 students in the class. There are classes on seed selection and lighting and others on irrigation and nutrients. Instructor Matthew DeBacco says the goal is to present a scientifically backed way to grow and to dispel myths that for years may have passed between illicit growers.
DEBACCO: Friends of friends sharing information that may have absolutely no scientific basis.
SKAHILL: Debacco wants the research-backed processes students get in this class to be directly infused into the cannabis industry. He says the lessons students learn on hemp are directly transferable to marijuana, and markets for hemp and marijuana are growing. So far, 10 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. Senior communication major Michael Milius thinks taking this class could help him find a job.
MICHAEL MILIUS: I see on the news a lot that cannabis and marijuana are becoming more prevalent with becoming legal across the country. And I figured if this does turn out to be something that, like, a market pops up, maybe it would be good for me to know how to grow.
SKAHILL: Gerald Berkowitz is a plant biologist and a professor at UConn who's helping to teach the course. He says another goal is just to break down stigma.
GERALD BERKOWITZ: There's a certain culture associated with cannabis. I myself a Grateful Dead Head.
SKAHILL: Berkowitz says years of that culture combined with tight federal research regulations means there's been little study of cannabis.
BERKOWITZ: There's lack of peer review. There's lack of scholarship. There's lack of sharing of information.
SKAHILL: 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.
BERKOWITZ: If we have students who treat the course as seriously as we're offering it, I think that we will have a situation where people in myriad fields, academic fields, are going to feel legitimatized.
SKAHILL: Student Madison Blake says her work in the campus greenhouse has made her curious about maybe exploring cannabis as a career.
BLAKE: I don't know if that's a hundred percent what I want to do with my whole life, but I'm definitely interested in the plant and where it could go from here.
SKAHILL: Because when it comes to career and cannabis, University of Connecticut students like Blake are still figuring it all out.
For NPR News, I'm Patrick Skahill in Hartford, Conn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.