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University of Virginia Harvesting First Results From Hemp, Medical Marijuana Project

Ron Strider

Well-Known Member
The University of Virginia has completed its first successful harvest of hemp plants in collaboration with a private plant biotechnology company.

The harvest – coming after the first year of a three-year, $1.1 million sponsored research agreement between UVa and biotech company 22nd Century Group – is one of several private-public partnerships across the commonwealth investigating hemp and medical marijuana. Principal investigator Michael Timko wants to renew Virginia as a leading producer of hemp and to restore land depleted by tobacco and mining.

"The idea is, why should we be importing things from overseas when we could be growing it here," said Timko, a biology professor at UVa. "Plus, it creates new sources of revenue for farmers."

22nd Century's first harvest with UVa identified varieties of hemp ideal for growing in Virginia, according to the company. 22nd Century also is working with UVa to develop medical marijuana and cannabinoid extraction processes for medical and therapeutic use.

Industrial hemp, although the same species as marijuana, is a distinct strain that has lower concentrations of the psychoactive agent tetrahyrdocannabinol, or THC. Hemp is used to make nutritional supplements, paper, rope and oils. Extracts of cannabinoids from the plant, sometimes called medicinal marijuana, can be used for therapeutic purposes.

Hemp is relatively easy to grow, Timko said, but a century-long ban on the crop has made it hard to find varieties suited to the Virginia climate.

"The payoff, if you look at what the projections of what the industry could be, is astronomical," he said.

However, hemp is still hampered by its associations with marijuana. The United States is the only country that still classifies hemp as a Schedule I drug, placing it under high levels of regulation. Hemp was made illegal to grow without a permit in the U.S. in 1970, but legislation in 2014 and 2016 allowed universities to grow or cultivate industrial hemp with THC concentrations below 0.3 percent. UVa also has a permit from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency that allows growth of industrial hemp, as well as medicinal marijuana and medical marijuana, which have higher THC limits.

Legislation pending in Washington would reclassify hemp as a commodity crop, which would allow Timko to work with researchers in other states and allow farmers to test the crop without licenses from research universities.

Timko is the only principal investigator at UVa looking into hemp or medical marijuana, and 22nd Century is the only external private company related to that type of research, according to a UVa spokesman.

"Cannabis is just one of those plants that is fascinating because it has such a long use, not just as a recreational drug but as a therapeutic," Timko said. "I've always been interested in the secondary metabolism of plants – the compounds they make not directly related to their normal growth."

Timko said he's most excited by work with UVa's College at Wise in Southwest Virginia. Hemp was planted on land crippled by old coal mines. Results from those fields still are being recorded.

"I'm very excited about the prospect of using hemp for reclamation and phytoremediation," Timko said. "It's very deep-rooted, so it breaks up the soil and allows nutrients to get back in. You can both reclaim the land and use the product of hemp for profit."

Another aspect of the research project is working with greenhouse growers to create medicinal variations of hemp. Timko said he hopes to create special variations of the plant that have concentrations of cannabinoids that are effective for particular diseases. Recent state legislation allowing epilepsy patients to access cannabinoids may encourage even more exploration of hemp and medical marijuana, he hopes.

In May, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services put out a request for more research proposals from universities interested in industrial hemp research, but a spokeswoman for the department, Erin Williams, said it received no proposals.

In addition to UVa, the department currently has agreements with James Madison University, Virginia State University and Virginia Tech to conduct research in industrial hemp, including into the use of hemp seed oil in the production of biodiesel.

While the department won't be adding to its industrial hemp research program in 2018, Williams said some varieties are showing promise, and all of the participating universities are expected to renew their memoranda of understanding for next year.

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