When medical marijuana became legal in Rhode Island in June 2007, Luis Hernandez figured it would only be a matter of time until a school teaching proper growing techniques sprang up. As he watched years go by, nobody took action, and he decided to take matters into his own hands. His school, the New England School of Alternative Horticultural Studies, will conduct its first class Sept. 25 in Barrington.
"There's a right way to do it, and there's a wrong way to do it," Hernandez said of the process. "Here's how you do it safely without electrocuting yourself, without burning the house down - and if you really want to get good results."
Hernandez has studied the process for over seven years in California, where medical marijuana has been legal since 1996. He spent those years "going back and forth (between) working with legal caregivers and learning and trading. That's something I have a personal interest in," he said. The school, he said, is the perfect way to blend his passion and his skills.
Rhode Island's medical marijuana law currently allows caregivers to have up to 12 plants in their possession, or 2.5 ounces of "usable" marijuana. Medical marijuana is regulated on a state-by-state basis, and Hernandez said Rhode Island has some of the most stringent laws.
"I've been into the subject matter for quite a number of years now, but obviously there's the question of legality. ... There are a lot of folks like myself who (learned) a lot from books before you could do anything live," said Hernandez. And even now that medical marijuana has been legalized in Rhode Island, he added, "I can see how easy it would be to fall into a situation where you would be breaking the law."
He cited cloning - a process in which exact replicas of an ideal plant are created - as an example. "A lot of times, clones don't come out 100 percent," he explained. "Maybe all five of them will root, and maybe they'll all die." Generally, he said, growers should make twice as many clones as they need - but if they don't take into account their legal limit, they can run into trouble. "A clone may not be rooted and, for you, not really be a plant, but if the law comes in, he won't be able to tell the difference," he said.
Another challenge for Hernandez has been the legality of teaching someone who may not have a caregiver's license from the state. A caregiver is anyone over 18 who is willing to help a patient for whom a doctor has recommended medical marijuana, he said. "We are working with lawyers to make sure we don't break the law - after all, one of the classes is how to stay within the law."
It is this legal awareness, as well as the physical process of growing, that Hernandez is aiming to teach in the two-day classes his school will offer.
Rhode Island's law does not mention the legality of medical marijuana schools one way or another. For this reason, State Senator David Bates, R-Barrington and Bristol, though he had not heard of Hernandez's school, said, "I would tread very, very carefully with it."
So far, Hernandez said, there has been a "huge amount" of interest - more than 50 percent of the tickets for his first class, which he will teach, have already been sold, and he is working on putting together a schedule for the next few months, for a variety of locations.
As for the curriculum, Hernandez chose not to visit similar schools located on the west coast. "The last thing I want to do is go to some other school and be looked at as someone who went somewhere and learned something and basically regurgitated it all over again," he said. Depending on how smoothly the class runs, he plans to change the curriculum. "It depends on the student body - who's going to show up? We may be able to breeze through a lot of things and we may not. We may even find that we don't get through all the material in one weekend," he said.
Hernandez envisions a school not just where people can learn how to properly grow marijuana, but also where he can educate the community about the idea of medical marijuana - "where city officials who will eventually be cast with the job of making laws for the community can come to be a little more informed about what they should be addressing in policy." Ultimately, he said, "I want the school to be a place where people can come and learn in an unbiased" environment.
Hernandez said he understands the argument that there are people who will abuse the drug's medical aspect in order to get marijuana. But there are "really debilitated folks who need this," he said. The "true question," he said, is whether it is "worth it to keep it out of the hands of those who are going to do it recreationally but take it away from people who need it."
"This is the first time we've heard of this," said Annemarie Beardsworth, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health. "From the Health Department's point of view, our one concern is that accurate information is presented, not only about what the law permits in terms of growing (marijuana) but about the rules and regulations for caregivers and patients."
An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Luis Hernandez as saying that he had gone back and forth between "working with local caregivers and loaning and trading." He instead said he was "learning and trading." The Herald regrets the error.