Cannabis Production may have been stigmatized in the past, but not any longer. This post from The Star throws light on how cannabis PhD takes higher education to a new level.
Deron Caplan’s brain has been hooked on pot for years.
And for the casual, infrequent marijuana user, it’s paid off in Canada’s first PhD in cannabis production.
“It (cannabis) is not really a big part of my life outside of the science,” says Caplan, who earned his doctoral degree from the University of Guelph in late August.
“There is a need for the science and there is a market and there are people that are growing it and they are going to have to grow it safely and make money … and they can’t just make it all up themselves.”
As the country prepares to open up a multibillion dollar cannabis market Oct. 17, the newly minted pot doctor knows he’s taking his degree into the business at the perfect time.
There will doubtless be more and more postgraduate degrees based on cannabis production after it has been legalized, says Anja Geitmann, dean of agriculture at Montreal’s McGill University.
“I’m pretty sure it’s going to change the research landscape in the sense that researchers now have access or can do research on the plant much easier,” she says.
And while there’s currently a “huge black hole” in scientific knowledge about the cannabis plant, the easier access to it legalization will give universities will make Canada a world leader in the field, she says.
Caplan’s interest in cannabis science stemmed from the horticultural courses he took as an afterthought during his time as an undergraduate in environmental sciences at Guelph.
“They offered a number of plant courses … and I took some on a whim and fell in love with it,” the North York native says.
“I’d always been interested in economics and business, and I figured I wanted to get into an exciting, fast-growing industry and unfortunately there’s not much that qualifies in terms of the plant science.”
But with medicinal marijuana already legalized in Canada at the time and a recreational sanction on the horizon, cannabis was a notable exception.
“I was trying to graduate to be done by the time legalization was happening so I kind of had my head on the ground, not looking for work,” Caplan says.
“But I had a number of companies contact me, some with some very serious interest in having me on to continue to do research with them or to help them improve their production practices.”
After receiving his undergraduate degree, Caplan approached horticulture professor Youbin Zheng — who has done extensive work with cannabis — to ask about doing a master’s study of the plant.
Zheng told him there were no postgraduate openings in cannabis research at the time, but that something may well open up in the near future.
So Caplan decided to travel and his eight months’ worth of voyaging took him to France, Germany, Croatia, the Netherlands, Greece, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Russia.
“And then Youbin messaged me that he had a project and so I came back and started the research,” he says.
(He began his master’s program in May 2015 and would combine it with his doctoral work in July 2016.)
Zheng, who would become Caplan’s thesis adviser as he pursued his PhD, says his student was an eager and adept horticulturalist.
“He’s a bright young man, he works hard, he’s focused and he’s intelligent,” says Zheng, who added Caplan collaborated with him on the first research paper in North America to be published in a peer-reviewed journal on indoor cannabis production.
Caplan is now looking for a private-sector company that will provide him with the best economic and scientific fit.
“I want to continue to do the science and also help (a future employer), with all the information that I’ve gathered over the years, (to) help them improve their quality.”
Caplan says he’ll also continue working with graduate students who will be studying cannabis at Guelph.
At McGill University, Geitmann says three students have written doctoral theses on production of the neutral hemp version of cannabis, but none of them have yet to earn a PhD based on the medicinal and intoxicating marijuana strains that are being legalized in October.
A survey of other major agricultural schools across the country found none had produced a PhD in cannabis production and Zheng says Caplan’s achievement is likely a North American first.
Caplan says his parents are overjoyed with his academic achievement despite its stigmatized subject matter.
“Honestly, they are fairly liberal. They’re thrilled with it. They never had any issues,” the 26-year-old says.
“I’m sure that they’d be concerned if I was smoking weed every day … (but) they realize that it’s a science like any other that has a demand.”
Aside from the economic opportunities the field presents, it will also allow Caplan a wide open academic space to work in.
“It’s interesting and new and the fact that there is (little) research in the area (meant) I could have free rein of what I wanted to do,” he says.
“Being able to get into the forefront of a … scientific topic these days, doesn’t seem like even an option, it’s kind of just built upon the work of others.”
Caplan’s PhD thesis focused on the basic horticultural elements of cannabis production — methods that had been largely ad-libbed in the prohibition era.
“Any crop you’re producing you have to know how much to fertilize it, how much to irrigate it, what to grow it in,” he says.
“And because there’s not academic research on the topic, there’s very little guidance for growers and growers are forced to rely on (often) unreliable information,”
His work produced an academic body of advice — on such things as optimal fertilizer rates and growing mediums — that can be used by large licensed producers or at-home newbies.
“We custom-formulated and evaluated several growing substrates … specifically for cannabis and determined what would work best,” says Caplan, who did most of his field work with licensed producers who were growing medical marijuana.
He also looked at the best methods to propagate new plants, concentrating on the stem-cutting techniques most growers use.
“There’s a lot of practices that we see with cannabis growers that are interesting and have some kind of logical explanation, but not necessarily one that’s founded in plant science,” Caplan says.