In the basement of the Physics and Chemistry building, senior Rachel Stegmeier dried spiky green flowers in an oven, ground them in a food processor to a fine dust then sieved them with a mesh screen, filling the air with a distinct smell: cannabis.
“It smells like exactly how you think it would,” Stegmeier said.
Stegmeier didn’t dry and grind the cannabis for fun, though — she’s working with cannabis to research hemp.
Hemp, like marijuana, is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant that has low levels of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which gives someone the “high” that’s associated with marijuana. The other active ingredient in hemp is cannabidiol or CBD
Stegmeier, a chemistry major and JMU Honors College student, is conducting research on the levels of CBD and THC within hemp plants for her honors thesis. Her goal is to establish a variation in the many different ways to measure CBD and THC in hemp, which can have large implications for hemp farmers.
In 2018, the Farm Bill was signed into federal law, removing hemp with THC levels below 0.3% from the definition of marijuana. Stegmeier said when farms test over the legal limit of THC, farmers have to burn their crops.
“When you analyze hemp, if it tests over it can result in a big financial loss,” Stegmeier said. “We’re looking at variations such as instrumental techniques, extraction, solvents — stuff like that.”
Stegmeier explained that when analyzing the hemp, Virginia uses a test called gas chromatography and takes samples from the top of the hemp plant. But Stegmeier said levels of THC vary throughout the plant and there’s actually a form of testing that’s more widely applicable: high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC). HPLC can test for more cannabinoids like THC and CBD in hemp and doesn’t reduce the number of compounds that can be detected, unlike gas chromatography.
“It’s important to know that there’s variation in the analytical methods of hemp, but also in the hemp itself,” Stegmeier said. “The sampling and analysis that’s currently established in Virginia isn’t always very representative.”
The lab conducting hemp research has worked with several hemp farms in the surrounding area, including one owned by Ethan Pompeo (’16) called Green Valley Nutrition. Pompeo connected with the lab after a JMU student working for him took a summer class on the chemistry of cannabis. Although Pompeo isn’t working with the lab currently, he said the connection has been helpful for his business.
“To have a lab and a friend at JMU who can do that [testing] fully is really valuable,” Pompeo said. “I was an [integrated science and technology alumnus] myself so I’ve been in the labs in the chemistry department, and it was really cool to go back there and have them be a part of my work now.”
Pompeo emphasized the lack of consistency in testing hemp for levels of THC within the industry. Although JMU’s lab may not have some of the same accreditation other state-run labs do, Pompeo said he believes its testing is more true to the composition of the material.
Pompeo said the CBD industry is like the “wild west” because of the lack of regulations. If Pompeo’s hemp were to test above the 0.3% threshold, he would have to destroy it under Virginia law, but with multiple labs giving different results, Pompeo said hemp farmers can choose the lab results that benefit them.
“Right now there’s a big problem in the industry where I can take the same sample of material and send it to three different labs and get three different results,” Pompeo said, “so finding a lab that you can trust that’s also local is really valuable.”
Stegmeier’s project started after she took an Honors Option class that allowed her to engage with hemp research. She said she wanted to get involved with an ever-changing field of study.
“Since it’s a new field, it’s been challenging, because a lot of it isn’t as well established,” Stegmeier said, “but it’s also one of the most enjoyable parts since there’s so much that we can be studying.”
Stegmeier collected samples from a hemp farm in Augusta County in September 2020, picking and choosing samples from every part of the plant.
“I’ve liked the fieldwork a lot, and interacting with farmers and other chemists and scientists,” Stegmeier said. “I’ve gotten to experience multiple different aspects of the field I’m interested in and communicating with others in different fields.”
After collecting, drying and grinding samples, Stegmeier said, the lab used different solvents like methanol and tested it using the two different tests available — gas chromatography and HPLC — to extract the CBD and THC.
“It’s been very challenging to interpret the data since we follow the random sampling procedure,” Stegmeier said. “The variation is all over the place. We can’t find a specific trend yet, which has been challenging.”
Pompeo said he does his due diligence, but the variation in testing can have a large impact on his work.
“Those implications are really critical to my business because it means the difference between breaking the law and not,” Pompeo said.
On a typical day, though, Pompeo said he doesn’t have to worry about the levels of THC within his products, because they’re all THC-free. He said the testing focuses more on the amount of CBD in his products, to ensure they have the right amount listed.
Pompeo said his mission is to help destigmatize cannabis and show all the health benefits like helping with inflammation associated with CBD without the high from marijuana.
Samantha Forbes, a sophomore chemistry major, helped prep samples and enter data for Stegmeier’s thesis project while conducting hemp research of her own where she looks at the data coming from hemp extraction. Forbes said many people don’t understand the difference between hemp and marijuana.
“I wish people would become more aware of [the difference],” Forbes said. “What Rachel’s doing is helpful because then you can see more of the concentrations of the chemicals, which makes hemp, hemp versus marijuana, even though there’s not an actual biological distinction.”
For now, Stegmeier’s working on finishing her thesis, but she said this project has shaped her college experience and her future goals.
“I didn’t want to do research ever again. When I did it, initially I hated it,” Stegmeier said, “but I actually enjoyed this type of research and I’m going to grad school to do environmental analytical research again.”
Contact Ashlyn Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.