‘Pot schools’ crop up as US states relax laws

But federal restrictions on cannabis are hampering US research, scholars warn

April 24, 2014

Source: Getty

Back off the buds: federal law does not recognise the legalisation of cannabis so researchers keep plants off campus

Medical Marijuana Tampa is nothing more than a few offices in a converted former church beside an interstate highway and across from a greyhound racing track.

Little else stands out about the place beside the name that’s been attached to it by locals: Cannabis College.

The makeshift campus offers only one course so far, Education in Cultivation. But it is one of many higher education (no pun intended) training and research programmes popping up as US marijuana laws are gradually eased.

“The floodgates may not be fully open, but there is a trickle of water coming through,” said Dennis Donovan, director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington.

That northwestern state is one of two that have legalised marijuana for recreational use for people over the age of 21; the other, Colorado, also allows residents to grow a limited amount of it. Another 18 of the 50 states, and the District of Columbia, permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Marijuana is still not legal in Florida for any purpose, although there is a medical marijuana proposal under consideration that will be decided by voters in November. So Cannabis College uses pepper and tomato plants to show its students how to grow marijuana.

It is an example of the legal tangle that is only slowly working itself out, but is causing headaches for conventional universities that have to follow federal law as a condition of continuing to receive money from the federal government through such means as student subsidies and research grants.

Federal law does not recognise the legalisation of marijuana. One effect of this is that, even in Washington state and Colorado, students still cannot possess or use it on campus. Another is that researchers are not allowed to grow it.

“It looks like we will eventually be able to do that, but until these conflicts are clarified, it’s a challenge,” said Nolan Kane, assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, where, even though growing marijuana everywhere else is now legal, he is forced to work in an industrial building off campus studying marijuana strains provided by others.

“It still is a challenge because of these legal grey areas. We can’t do our own crosses, we can’t grow plants,” said Professor Kane, who hopes to map the plant’s genome and to help hemp farmers and marijuana growers improve their breeds.

It is easier for researchers to get permits to study heroin and cocaine than marijuana, he said.

“These different compounds have given us great insight into the way our brains work,” he said. “But cannabis is in this strange situation, which is that, despite the fact that it’s widely used, it’s difficult to study, even in comparison to much, much harder drugs.”

Federal restrictions appear to be easing. An agricultural bill just passed by Congress will let universities in nine states that permit industrial hemp cultivation conduct research into that without risking their federal funding.

The new Washington state law even sets aside 1 per cent of proceeds from sales taxes on marijuana for research.

“There are lots of things that are beginning to bubble up,” said Dr Donovan. “As perceptions begin to change, the atmosphere in which research can be conducted can begin to change.”

Meanwhile, students – seeing money to be made in marijuana – are being attracted to programmes that can teach them how to grow it.

“It’s an industry that, if you’ve got 100,000 square feet (9,290 sq m), you can make $50 million to $80 million [£30 million to £50 million] a year,” said Charlie Washington, who has the title of associate dean at a company in Colorado that has set itself up as “Cannabis University” with the motto: “The Harvard of Pot Schools”.

“To work inside these places, everyone in there needs to be trained,” Mr Washington said. “From kids in college up to senior citizens, they want to grow their own.”

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