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Inaugural conference makes Eastern the hub of cannabis research

Published on October 24, 2022

Inaugural conference makes Eastern the hub of cannabis research

Eastern announces new cannabis certification at NECREC

Eastern students present cannabis research at NECREC.

Student Jibril Davis tables in the NECREC exhibitor hall.

Local vendors from the Willimantic Food Co-op table in the NECREC exhibitor hall.

Biology Professor Bryan Connolly, director of Eastern's Cannabis Cultivation and Chemistry minor

Cannabis cultivators, researchers and industry hopefuls visited Eastern Connecticut State University from Oct. 21-22 for the state’s first academic conference focused on cannabis research. After becoming the first school in Connecticut to offer a minor in Cannabis Cultivation and Chemistry, Eastern hosted the inaugural New England Cannabis Research and Education Conference (NECREC). The conference gave experts and students a forum to discuss cannabis research and also announced a new certification program for sustainable cannabis businesses.

“Speakers acknowledged Eastern as being a leader in cannabis science programming in multiple settings,” noted Amanda Irwin, the conference’s lead coordinator. “Around 200 people attended the conference sessions from five different states as far away as Maryland. Students, academics and the public really enjoyed the scientific exchange, asking insightful questions in every panel discussion.”

Following the event’s registration, dinner reception and other opening ceremonies, attendees gathered in the Student Center Theatre to hear NECREC’s first featured speaker, Gerald Berkowitz. For the past 40 years, Berkowitz has been renowned for his work as a biologist at UConn, a pioneer in the field of plant science and an expert in cannabis horticulture.

His presentation was titled "Molecular Analysis of Cannabinoid Biosynthetic Genes: How Hormones, Environmental Signals and Transcription Factors Can Increase the THC (or CBD) Content of Cannabis."

Throughout his lecture, Berkowitz discussed the outdated standard for THC concentration levels, as well as the lack of federal funding and irrational government regulations on cannabis research. Yet, his primary area of focus was describing the importance of increasing trichome production using a UConn-patented transcription factor called MIXTA.

“This is a plant that has a lot of magical unknown qualities,” said Berkowitz. “It could contain the magic and majesty of how all life works. However, all this research is just the beginning. This is a wild party of biology with so much left to study.”

A panel of cannabis business owners speaks at NECREC.

Student Natasha Durand presents at NECREC.

Keynote speaker Gerald Berkowitz, biology professor at UConn

Student researchers Alexa Jacobson, Ava Odlum and Adam Wysocki.

Day two of NECREC was held in the Dr. David G. Carter Science Building and showcased student panels, professionals’ tips and tricks for growing and expanding business outreach, and another featured lecture from an industry-leader in cannabis research.

Eastern alumnus and owner of Mr. Nice Guy Cannabis Cultivation & Garden Supply Store, Ryan Vassar `03, jumpstarted the day-long event. Vassar spoke to attendees about managing cannabis businesses as well as future employment possibilities in the field. He also discussed the benefits of utilizing sustainable practices, solutions and supplies while cultivating cannabis farms.

“We need to shift our focus from a mono-farming approach to a full farm approach,” said Vassar. “We’re almost through the veil, but not quite yet. However, if done correctly, farmers can produce enough hemp to prevent a toilet paper shortage from ever happening again.”

During a panel titled "Sustainable Cannabis Cultivation,” Eastern announced a new certification to recognize cannabis businesses that prioritize sustainability. Speaking of the New England Sustainable Cannabis Certification (NESCC), panelist Patty Szczys, director of Eastern’s Institute for Sustainability, said, "We know consumers value a commitment to the environment, diverse and equitable communities, and to fighting climate change. This certification highlights cannabis businesses of all types committed to these principles."

NESCC logo.

Biology Professor Bryan Connolly, director of Eastern’s cannabis program, added, "With the effects of climate change becoming ever more apparent, sustainability needs to touch every aspect of our lives. The cannabis industry is a good platform to discuss sustainability as cannabis growers and the industry, in general, are a group of people who are open and willing to participate in environmentally responsible programs."

At 12 p.m., Jason White, the day’s keynote speaker presented on "The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station: 147 Years of Consumer Product Safety." White has a Ph.D. in environmental toxicology and environmental science,and is also the director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. His research is directly intertwined with the FDA’s regulation of all food and drug products within the state of Connecticut, including cannabis.

“Once our independent regulatory agency became ISO accredited, The FDA funded us $20,000 to run each of our THC and CBD testing programs,” said White. “Since then, cannabis has managed to create four new jobs in our labs. That is a 400% increase over the past decade!”

White said that he joined the conference to inspire the next generation of scientists and research interns to assist in his testing of hemp, THC, CBD and adult cannabis.

The remainder of the event was dedicated to displaying the cannabis-related research efforts of undergraduate college students from Eastern students. Featured undergraduate scientists and researchers included: Alexa Jacobson, Giahna Ellis, Ava Odlum, Adam Wysocki, Tanner Demko, Sydney DeNoncour, Grace Franklin and Natasha Durand.

Odlum, whose topic centered on the wrongful incarceration and drug charges of minorities based on the color of their skin, noted that “there are millions of people of color still

imprisoned in states where cannabis is legalized and decriminalized. Laws regarding cannabis have certainly changed, but we still need to do more.”

Written by Jack Jones