In his column “Weed all about it,” Mustang News reporter Jeremy Garza will regularly discuss local and national cannabis issues, education, cultivation, and more.
This opinion piece was originally published in the first edition of MMG’s new arts and culture magazine, The Peak.
Smoking a little pot is more than just a phase for some college students. As an increasing number of states legalize recreational marijuana use for adults — Ohio voters just made their state the 24th in the nation to pass a legalization referendum in November — the cannabis industry is becoming more lucrative and less taboo.
Cal Poly 2019 alum Conor Stephen was first introduced to marijuana by his friend’s older siblings when he was growing up. His initial fascination with cannabis progressed into a curiosity in how the plant grows and he soon discovered that there is a major lack of reliable information.
“I really wanted to conduct research and fill in the gaps on things that are misunderstood because what you’ll hear is a lot of ‘bro science’ instead of actual science,” Stephen said. “It’s not all accurate or based on a lot of logic.”
Other agricultural industries — wine, dairy, commercial crops — have had a long time to advance their methods since the industrial revolution and modern technology evolved. Agricultural industries have been fine tuning production processes to create the best tasting product for the lowest cost for decades.
Universities had the privilege of researching these processes and producing industry leaders and innovators. Just last year, Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences opened the JUSTIN and J. LOHR Center for Wine and Viticulture. The facility houses three unique wineries to teach students every aspect of wine production: a commercial winery, a teaching winery and a research winery.
This excellent embodiment of “Learn By Doing” is going to make Cal Poly wine and viticulture alumni wine industry game-changers for decades to come. With its state-of-the-art Dairy Innovation Institute, Strawberry Center and many other multidisciplinary centers, CAFES is creating generations of leaders for the future of agriculture in California and beyond.
One glaring department is missing: a research and production center for cannabis. Centers that are designed specifically for cannabis education are slowly popping up around the country. Cal Poly students are missing out on extensive education in a market estimated by Forbes to hit $50.7 billion dollars by 2050.
“If [Cal Poly] allowed the plant on campus, they are uniquely positioned as a recognized agriculture school on the central coast to supply the next generation of these hybrid professionals for an emerging industry which is already more valuable than grapes and strawberries,” Stephen said.
Attempting to create real scientific research to replace the faulty “bro science” on cannabis led Stephen to pursue a plant science degree at Cal Poly. After graduation, he got an M.S. at Cornell University, where he researched horticulture.
Stephen is now starting his own company, Polymorph, to further study the tissue culture of plants, specifically cannabis. He hopes to be able to offer Cal Poly students internships to learn more about tissue culture in general and specifically with cannabis.
“There’s still so much more that we need to research and to study,” Stephen said. “It’s important that we’re not fearful of the plant because it’s been so misinterpreted and misidentified. I think research is ultimately the cure to all that.” Stephen is starting his company in Santa Cruz but plans to set up a location in San Luis Obispo in the future.
Per Cal State University System policy, which ensures a controlled-substance free workplace on all campuses, cannabis of any kind is not allowed on any Cal State campus, including Cal Poly.
This Cal State policy is due to the federal illegality of most forms of cannabis due to its classification as a Schedule 1 controlled substance — meaning the US does not formally see any medical benefit and has a high potential for abuse. Other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin, ecstasy and LSD.
“We can’t grow cannabis on campus yet,” plant science department head Scott Steinmaus said. “That day will come, but it’s just not here right now.”
The Drug-Free Workplace Cal State policy is the reason why Cal Poly does not have a cannabis program of any sort. Any cannabis officially on campus would revoke funding to the university from federal programs, such as Pell grants that are specifically supportive of underrepresented and lower income students.
Yet, according to Stephen, this situation is shifting and more schools are integrating cannabis education into their curriculum.
“It’s a tough situation because of the federal funding,” Stephen said. “The way that a lot of the schools are operating is with hemp programs right now. There are some universities that have been conducting research on cultivation with cannabis, like the University of Mississippi.”
Industrial hemp, defined as having less than 0.3% of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that causes the psychoactive feeling that cannabis is known for) content, is not a controlled substance as of the 2018 Agricultural Improvements Act. Cal Poly does not allow hemp-related research or curriculum.
In a statement to Mustang News in 2020, university spokesperson Matt Lazier wrote that there are no restrictions for hemp research and there are ongoing discussions in the Provost’s Office and the Office of Research and Economic Development. Lazier wrote to Mustang News in October that university policy has not changed since the publication of the 2020 article.
Even without “Learn by Doing” cannabis or hemp research allowed at Cal Poly, Steinmaus is positive that plant science alumni, like Stephen, will be successful in a cannabis industry career with a Cal Poly education as it stands.
“We basically teach students how to grow plants,” Plant Science Department Head Scott Steinmaus said. “It doesn’t matter what those plants are.”
Plant science students learn how to grow sustainably with California’s limited water resources and with environmental effects of pesticides in mind. Students learn the different growing nuances between types of crops — corn versus tomatoes versus strawberries, for example. Most importantly, they learn what to look for when they begin working with a new plant and how to bridge knowledge gaps.
“Cannabis is most often dioecious, which means there are separate female and male plants. This results in a lot of genetic recombination and diversity in the progeny, or seeds,” Stephen said. “Cannabis, whether hemp or weed, has a plethora of uses which has resulted in many different approaches to growing.”
For instance, to grow cannabis for medicinal purposes, farmers will usually use clonal propagation of only the female form of the plant to yield a product with more consistency and predictability, according to Stephen. Unfertilized female cannabis will have the highest concentration of phytochemicals, which will create the effects desired for treatments that cannabis is used for.
“Additionally, some varieties are better suited for premium flower production, and others for extraction which will influence genetic selection and growing practices,” Stephen said. “If you want the fiber from hemp, growers often start from seed in the field and it’s generally the male plants that produce higher quality fiber and there’s no concern of pollination.”
Having this many different ways to grow a crop is uncommon — most crops only have a couple slight differences in ways that most farmers follow.
“Plants, for the most part, all have similar requirements. They require light, water, nutrients, the right temperature, humidity, pest management strategies,” Stephen said. “Nothing will replace hands-on learning with a particular species and their nuances, but Cal Poly certainly equipped me with the tools and mindset to figure it out.”
Even without cannabis specific education, Stephen was able to use the knowledge obtained from a general plant science education to enter the cannabis industry. Steinmaus says that the plant science department teaches so students will be able to be applied to any crop.
“We teach them all the basics and what plants are looking for in general,” Steinmaus said. “They know that when they go to a different crop to look into nuances. They know what questions to ask.”
Cal Poly’s northern cousin, Cal Poly Humboldt, began offering a B.A. in Cannabis Studies this year. The program, which is housed in their Sociology Department and focuses on the environmental impact and historical context of cannabis in the U.S., is creating a lot of excitement at the university.
“We’re pretty excited about being one of the early developers of such programs,” Cal Poly Humbodlt sociology professor Josh Meisel said. “Students are excited about a program that’s so different and squarely in the field that they want to enter. It’s probably the same level of excitement as students entering the viniculture program.”
As noted on Cal Poly Humbolt’s Cannabis Studies fact sheet: the program does not involve any education on cultivation, production or sale of cannabis per the Cal State policy. This policy creates a stark difference between a wine program and a cannabis program.
“You have to be 21 if you’re going to do wine tasting,” Meisel said. “There’s restrictions on wine production. There are rules and regulations, but there’s not this tension between state and federal law to navigate.”
In a future world where Cal Poly could have a cannabis program, Stephen sees a clear vision for what it could look like — a well rounded curriculum that would cover everything from cannabis cultivation to harvest to processing. Additionally, he would also like to see a focus on related businesses like cannabis marketing.
“That’s what Cal Poly really is [known for]. ‘Learn by Doing’ it’s supposed to be really hands-on and produce the future leaders who are running the operation,” Stephen said. “I think that would be cool to have a program like that, but I know it’s quite a ways away.”