In an unprecedented move, federal researchers visited a medical cannabis farm in Vancouver, Washington to gauge the health impacts of working in the industry and performing tasks such as cultivation and processing. Does the repetitive motion of trimming marijuana flowers promote carpal tunnel? Are those processing dozens of pounds of freshly harvested cannabis, over the long term, in danger of inhaling plant particles that may be harmful to their health?
These are the questions that researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are trying to answer by making observations and gathering data in a real world facility. They recently spent the majority of a week in carefully controlled observations on a working cannabis farm outside of Vancouver in an effort to gather metrics.
This is a highly ironic and even perplexing research study. Simply put: Because cannabis remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the federal government officially regards it as completely lacking medical benefit and being a highly addictive and dangerous drug, as much so as heroin. Even all forms of cocaine and methamphetamines are less-restricted Schedule II drugs that can be prescribed by a doctor.
This study is especially ironic given the refusal of government bodies, such as Congress, to allow even minimal research at the federal level. Last summer, Congress voted not to allow cannabis research, especially that focused on CBD efficacy for conditions like epilepsy and cancer, to be orchestrated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and conducted by the National Institutes of Health outside of D.C.
This scientific investigation involved a team of four researchers descending on a pot farm owned by Tom Lauerman, also known as Farmer Tom to locals and customers, that lies just east of Vancouver. Their overall goal is to develop federal best practices and standards for workers in the cannabis industry. Again, a highly ironic and even confusing move for any group that’s officially part of the federal government. Until this farm visit, the team had never set foot on an actual, working commercial cannabis cultivation facility. The infamous University of Mississippi pot farm was the closest any of the researchers had officially come to a real world cultivation and processing operation.
Lauerman told reporters how he never imagined that his farm might someday be occupied by friendly employees of the federal government. He told local media:
“I never thought in my life that, by the time I’m 55 in the year 2015, we would have federal agents welcome onto my farm — like asking to come onto my farm — and get to educate them about cannabis. It simply just blows my mind.”
Researchers, who were not permitted to be identified by the media, outfitted cultivation and harvest workers with special sensors designed to do things like analyze air quality inside grow facilities. They even leveraged a high-tech glove (photos below) right out of science fiction that featured sensors that measured the activity of trimmers manicuring freshly harvested cannabis flowers.
What about the conflicting messages being sent by the feds to those in the cannabis industry and consumers of their products across the country? NIOSH claims that its research effort in no way conflicts with federal law simply because the researchers are analyzing working conditions, not the substance or product being produced. Because the activities of the cannabis farm are in full compliance with Washington State law, NIOSH — and apparently other government watchdogs — find no problem with the study or the researcher’s presence on the cannabis farm.
There were limitations, however. NIOSH researchers, for example, were prohibited under federal laws from touching or handling cannabis or cannabis products in any way. Results of the study won’t be released for at least a year (probably government speak for two to three). The cannabis industry and legalization movement should eagerly await and support the results of such studies to properly regulate and manage a burgeoning industry that promises to produce tens of billions in economic growth for a nation that has suffered a jobless recovery, severe underemployment, and a withering middle class for nearly a decade.
The White Hat Feds
Unlike the DEA and many Justice Department officials when dealing with individuals or companies in legal states like Washington, the NIOSH researchers were welcomed with open arms and conducted themselves professionally and with the best interests of cannabis industry workers in mind.
It should also be pointed out that the government researchers didn’t simply demand access to Lauerman’s farm or otherwise bully their way onto his property; they were invited. And who invited then? Lauerman. He said he wanted to ensure the eventual adoption by the industry of workplace protections for cannabis workers. Said Lauerman:
“Nobody has any idea what makes a safe workplace, it’s a new industry. I’m honored to have [the NIOSH] here.”
Will the DEA Step In?
Will the DEA try to squelch future research efforts by other government organizations, regardless of the legality? Normalization and acceptance of the plant, for any reason, including hardcore medical applications, are seriously frowned upon by the DEA, an organization that is beginning to see its budget reduced while progressive members of Congress call for its continued defunding and even dismantlement.
Cannabis activists and advocates can only hope that further cooperation between any faction of the federal government and the cannabis industry will occur in an effort to research and regulate what is becoming a multi-billion industry touching tens of millions of consumers and tax payers. Huge markets are being created in single states. The green rush is partially based on what might be accomplished by a majority of states declaring full legalization—let alone the anticipated eventual federal legalization that will inevitably occur after Luddites of Congress have retired and been replaced by more progressive colleagues.
To learn the results of this study, curious cannabis consumers must remain patient. For those who have suffered under the legal paranoia of prohibition and the uncertainty and frustration of black markets — especially those who are sick — patience has always been the modus operandi anyway.