Merced College students get unique opportunity to research hemp

MERCED COLLEGE, Calif. -- A new partnership is giving Merced College students a unique opportunity to study hemp and the factors that impact its growth.

Staff members say this is a great opportunity for students to conduct research that is on the cutting edge of an emerging industry.

But they realize there are many misconceptions about hemp versus marijuana, so they're happy to help set the record straight.

The students are able to study this plant because it was just removed from the federal list of controlled substances late last year.

"Honestly, it's a really cool experience. This is giving me an idea of what research really is because I didn't have a clear understanding of what it actually is," says Rebekka Cripe, one student.

Cripe and Arelia Duran are collecting insects in vacuums and taking soil samples under the guidance of Professor Valerie Albano. Their goal is to learn more about the conditions that impact how these plants grow.

"When we come out here, it's a different world... the bugs... what's eating the plants, so that's really interesting," says Duran.

They're also analyzing everything in a lab back on campus. This project is possible thanks to a new partnership with the Greenbrier Hemp Research Institute, which is funding all the expenses.

"One of the missions of Merced College is to train students for the 21st-century workforce, and so our relationship with the Greenbrier Hemp Institute is allowing us to train students in agriculture and in biotechnology, both of which are strong economic workforces in the modern California economy," says Dr. Albano.

But Albano admits the research has raised some eyebrows.

"The questions that we get very often are like - 'What's the smell?' And we're more than happy to explain that both hemp and marijuana smell the same. They have a lot of the same characteristics. However, you would need to consume a tremendous amount of hemp to get even close to the psychotropic effect that a single small amount of marijuana would give you. So it's been entertaining."

Hemp has a long list of uses, but the recent popularity of CBD oil has put a new focus on the crop. Albano hopes the research she and her students are doing could ultimately have an impact on medicine.

"This product could be hopefully in the future be used to treat chronic pain patients that would normally potentially be taking opiates, which are highly addictive."

The two students who are participating in this research project were selected through a competitive process. One plans to pursue a career in entomology, the study of insects, while the other hopes to work in a lab.

Professor Albano says she would love to expand this program to include more students in the future.