A petition circled around campus and online Feb. 14, gathering signatures to start a pilot program at Cal Poly to conduct research on industrial hemp. With an initial goal of 400 signatures, Ted Fitzgerald and Conor Stephen received the support of more than 1,750 students in less than two months.
Agricultural and environmental plant sciences senior Stephen said he was pleased with the majority-student response.
“Thus far the support has been tremendous. Every fifth or sixth individual that I have collected signatures from has stated, ‘Thank you so much, I’m so glad someone is finally taking the initiative and getting this started,’” Stephen said. “It really shows the open-mindedness of this generation. We are fighting for academic freedom and our peers are acknowledging it.”
Many students from the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences have shown interest in this pilot program, as well as students in other majors, according to agricultural business junior Fitzgerald. The pilot program’s research would study the growth, cultivation and marketing of industrial hemp — something Fitzgerald said will be useful across all six colleges.
Because there are a variety of uses for harvested hemp, students studying biological sciences, engineering, construction management and chemistry would also benefit from this research, according to Stephen and Fitzgerald.
“I believe this can bring great opportunities for Cal Poly students wanting to enter this highly lucrative and developing market,” journalism junior Everett Fitzpatrick who signed the petition said. “Letting students conduct research on this plant can lead to discovery of new uses for this extremely versatile crop and open up job opportunities for graduates.”
However, Stephen and Fitzgerald have received push-back from administration because of the California State University (CSU) regulations that overlap with the federal law that allows for this industrial hemp research.
Complications with CSU policy
The U.S. Farm Bill, also known as the Agricultural Act of 2014, states in section 7606 that an institution of higher education or a state department of agriculture may grow or cultivate industrial hemp for two specific reasons. The first is that the industrial hemp must be grown or cultivated for purposes of research conducted under an agriculture pilot program or other agricultural or academic research.
The growing or cultivating of industrial hemp must also be allowed under the laws of the state in which such institution of higher education or state department of agriculture is located and such research occurs.
However, despite California Proposition 64 — the California Marijuana Legalization Initiative — the Office of the Provost sent an email to faculty Feb. 27 stating that Cal Poly forbids any cannabis-related projects.
“Despite these developments, marijuana use, in any form, and marijuana production, possession, cultivation, purchase, sale, transportation or distribution on CSU property and/or in connection with CSU activities remains prohibited – both by CSU policy and under state and federal law,” Provost Kathleen Enz Finken wrote in the faculty email.
Finken said Cal Poly will not provide resources or support of any kind on any project involving cannabis. The regulations and requirements for cannabis research overlap with the CSU obligation to maintain a drug-free community.
The CSU website states that CSU is committed to maintaining a workplace environment free from the unlawful manufacture, possession, distribution, dispensation or use of any controlled substances in accordance with Executive Order 930. It also states that nothing in Proposition 64 changes those obligations.
If Cal Poly fails to comply, it could result in civil and criminal penalties, including the loss of federal funds to the campus and CSU.
“In light of this, such ‘Farm Bill’ projects will not be administered, supported, or conducted on our campus or with campus resources,” Finken wrote in the faculty email.
Finken said there is one circumstance where a pilot program could get started. If a campus researcher has expertise on cannabis and can get substantial funding for the program, he or she could discuss the idea with his or her college dean. From there, the college dean would talk to the Office of the Provost who would ultimately make the decision if hemp research is necessary on campus.
“Although carefully stated, this section of the letter admits there is a way in which research can be conducted,” Stephen said. “We are supported by a federal act and the USDA will even provide research grants.”
Both Stephen and Fitzgerald said they feel cannabis has been misrepresented for far too long and one of their goals is to communicate the difference between industrial hemp and drug-cannabis.
Industrial hemp is the non-psychoactive variety of Cannabis sativa L, meaning it cannot get you high. Though it comes from the same species, hemp and marijuana are vastly different. Hemp and marijuana have different functions, types of cultivation and application.
“A lot of what researchers and scientists have proven about cannabis is it’s not just the ‘devil’s lettuce,’ it has so many more properties and applications that can be used,” Fitzgerald said.
Hemp is used as a renewable resource for raw materials that can be used in thousands of products, such as hemp clothing, paper, biofuel, plastic composites and construction materials. The plant also requires little water to grow once established and does not need significant amounts of pesticides.
“We don’t see an issue with cultivating industrial hemp. This is a non-psychoactive, versatile crop that can be used for many different things,” Stephen said.
The Farm Bill defines industrial hemp to have a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (also known as THC) concentration of no more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis. THC is the chemical responsible for marijuana’s psychological effects. Marijuana can contain anywhere from 5 to 30 percent of THC content. This means it is impossible to feel the psychoactive effects from industrial hemp.
“The most dangerous thing about this crop are the stigmas associated with it,” Stephen said.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 grouped all types of cannabis together when making it illegal to grow in the U.S., associating industrial hemp with marijuana.
“Because it has been outlawed for so many years, the progress for scientific understanding has been delayed,” Fitzgerald said.
Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said March 26 he wants to remove hemp from the list of controlled substances, which could legalize the crop as an agricultural commodity.
Other schools doing it
Since the Farm Bill was signed in 2014, 34 states have passed laws creating or allowing for the establishment of industrial hemp research or pilot programs, according to votehemp.com.
“There are many universities across the U.S. that are currently working to collect valuable data on industrial hemp,” Stephen said.
Among these universities are Clemson University in South Carolina, Penn State, Purdue University, University of Kentucky and Cornell.
Over spring break, Stephen visited the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva where he saw hemp cultivation first-hand. Cornell University’s School of Integrated Plant Science has established an industrial hemp research program that has strong support from Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. The state of New York seeks to become a national leader in industrial hemp research and production.
Fitzgerald and Stephen are eager to research industrial hemp and hope to enter this field of work after their time at Cal Poly.
“I’m working to become an agronomist [and] am eager to study water usage, pest management, nutrient disorders and the cultivars that are best suited for the Central Coast of California,” Stephen said. “The pervasive illegality has resulted in a scientifically narrow understanding of industrial hemp and we wish to change that.”
Fitzgerald has a clear vision for the progress of this program — starting off very small but eventually turning into something very impactful for Cal Poly and the state of California.
“I see myself in 20 to 30 years coming back to Cal Poly and seeing something profound from the initiative we’ve taken here as students — making a lasting impact on our generation and future generations,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald and Stephen expect to get over 3,000 signatures on their petition by mid-Spring 2018. Once they have accomplished that, they plan to talk to Enz Finken and possibly CSU.
“The petition is the tangible evidence that we have a student body supporting us,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald and Stephen said they hope the petition will show administration that an industrial hemp research program is a worthy endeavor.
“We hope that this really shows the open mindedness and the interest of this generation to get involved with this crop. There are a lot of brilliant minds at Cal Poly — both students and professors — and I know that we have the potential to really shape this legitimate, upcoming industry,” Stephen said.