Cal Poly students want to grow and study hemp — but there's a big hurdle in the way

Cal Poly students get 3,000 signatures for hemp research

Cal Poly students Conor Stephen and Ted Fitzgerald are working to get a pilot program started at the university to conduct research on industrial hemp.
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Cal Poly students Conor Stephen and Ted Fitzgerald are working to get a pilot program started at the university to conduct research on industrial hemp.

Two Cal Poly students are making a push to bring industrial hemp research to the university in the coming years.

Ted Fitzgerald and Conor Stephen have gathered nearly 3,000 signatures from students and faculty members in support of an agricultural pilot program that would study the growth, cultivation and marketing of industrial hemp.

This type of research is allowed at the federal level under the Agricultural Act of 2014 — also known as the U.S. Farm Bill — but its complicated regulations and requirements have led to resistance from the Cal Poly administration.

According to Vote Hemp, a grassroots hemp advocacy organization working to change state and federal laws to allow commercial hemp farming, more than 30 universities around the country conducted research on the crop in 2017.

"There's not a well-established university in California that is taking on this research," said Fitzgerald, a junior studying agricultural business. "We feel the need that Cal Poly should be the spearhead within the California industry. I personally believe that California is the ultimate validation for this whole industry."

The university's administration isn't ready to lead that charge.

Despite the passage of California's Proposition 64 in 2016 — which legalized the recreational use of marijuana by people 21 and over — cannabis production, possession, cultivation, purchase, sale, transportation or distribution on CSU property and/or in connection with CSU activities remains prohibited, according to Provost and Executive Vice President Kathleen Enz Finken.

In an email sent out to faculty in February, Enz Finken highlighted that federal law continues to treat marijuana as a controlled substance and does not permit "the use, production, possession, processing, sale, growth, transportation or distribution of the substance for research purposes without an appropriate permit from the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)."

Cal Poly Hemp007
Cal Poly students Conor Stephen, left, and Ted Fitzgerald are working to get a pilot program started at the university to conduct research on industrial hemp. Joe Johnston

However, Section 7606 of the Farm Bill, "Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research," paves the way for an institution of higher education or a state department to cultivate industrial hemp in two situations:

  1. The industrial hemp is grown or cultivated for purposes of research under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research;

  2. The growing or cultivating of industrial hemp is allowed under the state in which such institution of higher education or state department of agriculture is located and such research occurs.

"We're doing it for the overall scientific understanding of this crop," said Stephen, a senior majoring in agricultural and environmental plant science. "We're lacking so much information, and a lot of the information we do have is misinformation. It's just been so slandered. We're trying to move mountains."

'A foundational framework'

Fitzgerald and Stephen hoped to collect a few hundred signatures when they started petitioning students during winter quarter.

It quickly became clear they underestimated their peers' interest in the topic. Many students they approach are engaged and excited — some even thank them, Stephen said.

But there is an important distinction that needs to be made.

Industrial hemp is the non-psychoactive variety of the cannabis sativa plant, meaning it cannot get a person high. Hemp contains a lower concentration of the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which decreases or eliminates its psychoactive effects.

Hemp is known to be a versatile crop that can be refined into commercial items such as paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, biofuel, food and animal feed.

Hemp also is a renewable resource, Stephen said, which "yields a couple times more on a per-acre basis than cotton."

"There's just so many benefits," he continued. "It's ridiculous that there's this amazing resource that we're not tapping into that's right in front of us."

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Fitzgerald and Stephen said they want to serve as the liaison between all the students who signed their petition — nearly 15 percent of the student body so far — and the administration. Both students understand industrial hemp research may not arrive during their college tenures, given the numerous hurdles in front of them.

Fellow students John Cortez, Katie Lust and David Miller also have played key roles in moving the project forward.

"Essentially, what our main mission is, and what we feel our purpose is, is setting up a foundational framework for the university to work off of in the future," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said his ideal vision for a pilot program would start with a nursery, where students could propagate the plant from seedling form. A partnership with local farmers would allow students to continue their research and data collection through the growth process all the way until harvest, Fitzgerald said.

Enz Finken made it clear in her email that, given current state and federal law, the university will not provide resources or support of any kind on any cannabis-related research without DEA permission. California universities are required to have an approved DEA 225 Form in order to import certified hemp seed to begin research.

There could be some help on the way.

Keep the conversation going

In April, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, introduced the bipartisan Hemp Farming Act of 2018.

The bill would remove hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and establish hemp as an agricultural commodity, protect state regimes, add crop insurance and bolster research.

"By legalizing hemp and empowering states to conduct their own oversight plans, we can give the hemp industry the tools necessary to create jobs and new opportunities for farmers and manufacturers around the country," McConnell said in a statement.

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Yet, university spokesman Matt Lazier said the school "will not offer conjecture" on how policy might change if a proposed federal bill were to pass.

"Should such a bill be enacted into law," Lazier said, "the university will work with the CSU system to determine how such new law would impact system-wide policy and how that would in turn affect policy on Cal Poly's campus."

The Hemp Farming Act appears to be the most likely avenue for Stephen and Fitzgerald's vision for hemp research at Cal Poly to one day become a reality.

And with the school year coming to a close, Fitzgerald said their main goal is to keep the conversation going.

They hope to eventually meet with Enz Finken and President Jeffrey Armstrong, as well as CSU Chancellor Timothy White.

"If we were to get approval, I think our first step would be to establish a full supply chain analysis from seed to farmer to processing centers," Fitzgerald said. "We have to be able to have that conversation, because it's been suppressed for far too long."