How ironic would it be if the University of Colorado Boulder became the world’s leading university to study cannabis?
The school’s history with the plant has been checkered at best. Anybody who’s lived here awhile knows about the longstanding 4/20 event, an annual tradition until the school went on the offensive, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and, one year, even pouring fish guts on campus grass to keep celebrants away.
Still, the school is often mentioned in those idiotic Top 10 Stoner Schools lists, and CU is prominent in the Wikipedia entry for 4/20. And though CU administrators insist that an increase in enrollment applications had nothing to do with legalization in the state, we all know that it had at least something to do with it.
So how cool would it be if CU becomes the major center for research into the cannabis plant? A CU team under the leadership of Professor Nolan Kane of the ecology and evolutionary biology department has begun a project to develop a genetic map of the Cannabis genus. This study will follow in the vein of Kane’s groundbreaking work on other genuses, including the sunflower.
“It has to happen here,” says Ben Holmes. “Boulder is this big innovation soup — beer, restaurants and software. It’s a culture. Boulder lends itself to that.”
Holmes is the owner of Centennial Seeds in Lafayette, which will be providing seed for the project. Holmes is registered with the Colorado Department of Agriculture as a farmer seed labeler.
“It gives me the ability to farm seed and then certify it and make sure it performs to certain standards,” he says. “I try to go seed-to-seed. That’s the way all major crops are reproduced.”
The implications of having a full genetic map of cannabis are staggering. This kind of information will become the starting point for all other research into and the manufacture of industrial hemp, as well as development of the sativa and indica varieties favored for pleasure and medicine and now legal in Colorado.
“It’s a plan to develop a genomic map of the genus Cannabis,” Holmes says, “so we can place individual genes on chromosomes and then develop assays for important genes so that you can screen plants at the seedling level.”
“We’ll be able to figure out how these traits work with each other and how they can be harnessed and exploited,” he says. “To have the abilities that this will provide — to screen plants at a young age — is like having super powers.”
Holmes is especially interested in hemp, which is basically cannabis grown for fiber, not resin. It was legal for more than 150 years to grow hemp in the U.S., and hemp farming here dates to the founding fathers. It is used in building materials, fibers, textiles, oils, food and thousands of other products here in the U.S. The irony is that all hemp used here must be imported.
Except for a short period during World War II, there has been no hemp legally grown in the United States since the 1930s, when it was lumped into the war against marijuana, and it is still classified as a controlled substance on a federal level.
Amendment 64 allows the production of hemp in Colorado, and the Farm Bill, which just passed the U.S. House and Senate, includes a provision championed by Rep. Jared Polis that allows universities to study hemp. Holmes’ interest is in trying to bring back a crop that has been discouraged, deliberately neglected and nearly forgotten.
The Kane study’s genetic maps will help expedite the process of building that seed stock again. “It’s a seed-propagated industry,” says Holmes. “We’ve had 75 to 76 years where there’s been no maintenance of crop, no seed stocks. That exists for most crops that are kept in a seed system — the USDA keeps 30-plus varieties of sunflowers. That doesn’t exist for hemp, and we’ve lost those seed stocks.”
Holmes has been buying and collecting cannabis seeds since 2004.
“I purchased some complete collections,” he says. “I lean toward the heirloom stuff that hasn’t been hybridized. It can be reproduced in a geographically isolated manner so it doesn’t get contaminated.”
The Kane Lab maps will also help farmers develop better cultivation and development practices.
“That partnership with agriculture schools is an old tradition that covers every crop we grow,” Holmes says. “Land-grant colleges were put together by an act of Congress that granted support to teach farming.”
Holmes notes that Colorado State University developed a farm community around its ag school. And if a recent meeting for potential hemp farmers that drew a huge, overflow crowd to the Reynolds Library branch on a recent Saturday is any indication, interest in hemp’s potential for local farmers is high.
“It’s just a first mapping of this genus that will be the basis for the bioscience industry and all work on the plant going forward,” Holmes says. “I’ll bet you’ll see ag schools start teaching a curriculum based on hemp. It’s a big idea.”
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