Probing Pot

HSU's marijuana institute tends a new crop of research



Ten years ago, the premise for a marijuana institute would have been laughed off of even Humboldt State University's fertile and notoriously weed-friendly campus. Even one year ago, despite changing political climes and the increasing call for daylight on the North Coast's shady marijuana industry, the academic minds who created the institute were unsure if it would ever emerge from the bulky stigma of "weed college."

The Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research was the butt of late-night jokes then, and it faces continuing significant challenges. Money. Time. Misconceptions. Acceptance. Diversity of research fields. Regulatory hurdles. But the directors of the Institute are optimistic and say that things are already changing.

Humble Beginnings

Four stories up in HSU's Behavioral and Social Sciences Building, institute Co-director Josh Meisel unlocks the door to HIIMR (pronounced "himmer") headquarters — a sparsely appointed office not much bigger than a closet. Outside the door is a small shared meeting room adjoined by the offices of other campus sociology associations. Inside, Meisel and Co-director Erick Eschker chuckle sheepishly as they show off the office's furniture — a chair, desk, filing cabinets and large bookcases containing a few books and binders sent to them by an upcoming speaker. There's not much to distinguish it other than the green and tan nameplate on the door. At this point, the institute doesn't need a lot of space. Not much research is being done in this room — it's being carried out by faculty members on and off campus.

Those researchers are working on a bevy of continuing projects, ranging from estimating the economic size of the local and national marijuana industries, to the change in attitudes toward pot, to marijuana use's effect on communities and much more.

So what's the purpose of all this?

Eschker and Meisel see themselves on the frontier of a new area of scientific inquiry. Imagine an astronomer discovering a new star, a geographer stumbling upon a lost city, a biologist encountering an unknown species — that's the excitement that bubbles out of the institute's co-directors. While the subject matter may not be as exotic (to Humboldtians, at least) as a Borneo rainforest or distant galaxy, the untapped potential for scientific discovery remains.

For Eschker, part of the excitement involves trying to get real data about the economics of the local marijuana trade. Anyone can look up how many bushels of tomatoes or grapes were grown in California last year — not so with pot.

There are "proxy measures," like the sales of turkey bags used to store marijuana, that give economists like Eschker an idea of how much pot is being grown and distributed. ("We have the juiciest poultry in the nation," Eschker jokes.) But those just aren't the same as reliable, quantifiable numbers that could only be gathered by the growers themselves.

Meisel — whose background is sociology and criminology (he recently founded the criminology major at HSU) — is fascinated by the legal controls on marijuana, and looking into the best ways to prevent social and environmental damage. The harms are there, but are they compounded by current regulations, he asks. The focus of the institute, Meisel says, is "What should we be doing?"

The institute's other members — mostly HSU faculty — are researching topics from the geography of marijuana prices around the U.S. to the labor market for traveling pot industry workers.


Meisel and Eschker still deal regularly with misconceptions about the institute. People assume they teach cultivation or advocate for marijuana. Eschker says he receives email inquiries almost weekly from young men in Italy, Russia or the U.S. who want to enroll in marijuana growing school.

At recent conferences Eschker says he got a "cool" reception, until he was able to explain the institute's mission in one-on-one conversations with attendees. "It just happens to be what we're studying has a lot of baggage to it," Eschker says, but once people understand the nature of the institute they typically warm up to it.

With national and international press and a continuing speaker series, more people are coming to understand the institute's mission. Just last month, HSU's marketing and communications department approved, for the first time, a HIIMR-promoted event poster with a (gasp) pot leaf on it.

But the university's administrators were never against the institute. When President Rollin Richmond came to Humboldt County in 2002 from Iowa State University, no one told him about the North Coast's underground pot economy. "It did surprise me a bit," he says.

As he became aware of the scale and importance of the cash crop on the local economy, community and environment, it became clear to him that more scientific research was needed. When Eschker and Meisel proposed the institute in 2012, Richmond was behind it immediately. "I was delighted," he says. "As a scientist, I'm all for getting more research on it."

Talking across a large wooden desk in his bright campus office, Richmond says he still has some doubts about legalizing marijuana, and marijuana abuse by college students and youth concerns him — though he doubts it's any worse than alcohol if it's used responsibly.

The institute gets him some teasing in the CSU Chancellor's Office, Richmond says, but it's all in good fun — the university system's administrators see the potential for the institute. "It's good for Humboldt State and the state universities as well," he says.

Neither Eschker nor Meisel are afraid that a new CSU Chancellor or HSU president will sink the institute — or that it would even come up in introductions to the school.

Where Are
the Biologists?

Though more than a dozen researchers are working with the institute, they're mostly sociologists, economists, anthropologists and geographers. Meisel and Eschker lament the lack of participation from one important field: natural sciences.

That's particularly frustrating with the increased awareness of and questions about the environmental impacts of pot. Farmers drying up streams, leveling forests and poisoning wildlife is nothing new, Meisel says — in fact CAMP (the multi-agency law enforcement Campaign Against Marijuana Planting) broadcast those effects in the early 1980s to gain support for its war on marijuana — but there's a resurgence in reports of those damages, and some have suggested that an increasing number of marijuana farms are spreading the damage more widely.

That assertion, though, is just another part of the pot puzzle that needs more study. Reports that the number of marijuana farms or the number of acres in marijuana production have increased in the last few decades are largely anecdotal, Meisel says. Satellite images of clearcut land and dwindling water flows imply a growing grower industry — but satellites don't show for certain what's in a greenhouse, and dried up streams could indicate resurging second-growth timber is sucking more water from the watersheds. The need to rule out other factors is precisely why the institute is seeking more natural scientists.

Meisel is frustrated that few natural researchers are expressing interest in the institute so far, particularly because HSU is known for its strength in those areas.

"Given the outstanding work in forestry, fisheries, environmental studies, wildlife — given the news of energy use, water, diesel spills — we have yet to hear from faculty members who want to get involved," Meisel says. He's actively courting (or "facilitating," Meisel says) a couple of HSU researchers to join the institute — though he declined to name them.

Why aren't natural scientists already involved?

Meisel fears it's the stigma of studying marijuana, but the campus' top biologist says it's just logistics.

Steve Smith, the dean of the College of Natural Resources and Sciences, says that finding time to plan out and begin new research projects is the biggest barrier. "I don't think it's anything about the stigma. I think our folks fully understand this is a legitimate area of research and should've been [considered legitimate] a long time ago."

Water quality engineers, wildlife professors and others from his college have expressed interest in marijuana research, Smith says, but unlike University of California schools, CSU professors are not given independent research hours — they're expected to perform their research while balancing their teaching workload.

Wildlife professor Rick Brown is interested in the effects of herbicides and pesticides used to protect marijuana crops and maximize profits. "They have potentially dramatic effects on wildlife," Brown says. "We don't know what those effects are."

But one problem for researchers representing the university, as Brown sees it, are the hazards of being out in the field.

"I do worry a little bit about safety, especially if you have students anywhere involved." People haven't been attacking wildlife biologists, he says, but he knows of field researchers who have been confronted by marijuana growers. Still, Brown's quick to point out that doesn't mean stumbling upon every grow is dangerous. "We tend to lump people together. I don't know that's appropriate in this case. I don't think it's right to classify a grower as a grower as a grower."

Marijuana research is also inherently more complicated than other subjects, requiring approval from federal and state governments, Natural Resources Dean Smith says. "Do you want to spend six months filing paperwork to get permission to do some simple thing?"

Three or four years ago a student was interested in studying hemp's ability to remove heavy metals, Smith recalls. The college looked briefly into the logistics of getting marijuana plants and harvesting hemp from their stalks, but the controls from the university and both the state and federal governments made it nearly impossible. "It's illegal," Smith says. "Stupidly, perhaps."

Bruce O'Gara, chair of the biology department, studies the effects of drugs on the brain and understands how difficult it is to research illegal drugs. To work with pot, he explains, you need government-approved sources of pot, a comprehensive paper trail and a drug safe bolted to the floor. The regulatory hurdles and costs have kept him from studying pot's effect on users, which is something he'd like to do.

"If you have nice big grants you can handle those sorts of things," he says, but "funding is very tight for all research right now. The government is very leery of funding research on almost any drug that could be used for enjoyment."

That doesn't mean that nobody's doing such studies. Brown points to Dr. Mourad Gabriel, a UC Davis researcher who co-founded the Integral Ecology Research Center in Blue Lake and is currently studying the effects of pesticides on fishers, the weasel-like mammal found dead near marijuana farms this year.

Gabriel was one of the HSU institute's guest speakers last year and has become a source for national news media, scholars and law enforcement agencies who seek to learn more about the environmental effects of pot grows.

The Money Hunt

While Eschker seeks hard figures for the income that the pot industry brings to Humboldt County and beyond, there's little doubt that it's a lot of cash. Researching marijuana, so far, is far less lucrative.

When Eschker and Meisel submitted their charter in 2012, they asked the university for nearly $60,000 in support — money for travel, website development, student research assistants, office and research supplies, and for the two co-directors' increased workload.

They didn't get any of that money. Eschker maintains the website. There's no funding for research, and the time to manage the institute and complete their own studies is piled on top of their other duties as professors.

"It isn't something that the campus has money for," says Rhea Williamson, the dean of research and economic and community development. Her organization provides the most direct oversight for the institute's funds and is helping it seek funding from grant sources and the community.

A small budget from the HSU Advancement Foundation, which solicits funds from private donors, pays for the travel and lodging costs of the institute's speaker series. And Eschker did receive some in incentive funding, which allowed him to take some time from his daily duties to work on a "major proposal." Neither Williamson nor Eschker would discuss the proposal, saying public disclosure could give competitors for grant funding an advantage.

The institute is also seeking community support — an endeavor its directors are approaching with caution.

"We have to navigate concerns about how we present ourselves," Meisel says. "We are not to take any advocacy positions. We can't accept support from growers."

With more funding they can support more research projects and, ideally, pay the students who assist them.

Meanwhile, the political climate surrounding pot seems to be changing. Just three years after Prop. 19 failed to legalize recreational pot in California, polls both statewide and nationally indicate upwards of 60 percent of the public favors legalization.

That puts the institute in a good position at a good time to become a source for the nation's adjustment to legal pot. If all goes well, it could be weighing in on public policy that will dictate how pot is grown, sold and consumed, and the impacts it will have on ecology, economy, social science and public health and safety.

"People are already looking to Humboldt for the product," Meisel says. "Let's be a source of knowledge. Not on cultivation, but on public health, economics, the environment."

That means being relevant in an ever-changing landscape, Eschker says. "We also can't be too provincial about what we're looking at. We have to ask how to be helpful to people across the nation, not just Humboldt County."

The institute seems to be reaching that goal.

Just Google marijuana institute and dozens of online "colleges" offer seminars in everything from growing to delivering marijuana and avoiding getting caught. Then there's legitimate, science-based labs, like the University of California's Center for Medical Cannabis Research, which studies the effects of marijuana use for medical treatment. Or the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, a national nonprofit that brings "an objective and data-driven perspective" to the "often emotional and fractious" area of alcohol and drug law.

Beau Kilmer is a co-director of the RAND drug research center, where he researches the size of black markets and the effects of marijuana legalization, among other topics, and is often interviewed by national and international publications out of his Santa Monica-based office.

Kilmer says HIIMR could provide information that would help his own organization, which employs about 70 researchers in three countries.

"As the conversations are starting to get more serious, people need real data," he says. "We're now having discussions about 'how do you regulate production?' [and] 'what kind of taxes do you apply?'"

Reasonable people can disagree about policy, Kilmer says, but everyone needs hard facts. In his own line of research he tries to estimate the size and scale of black markets. "I think the institute at Humboldt is really going to help us get that kind of information. That's going to be really helpful in making policy decisions."

And if legalization ever does materialize, Humboldt County will need all the information and analysis it can get to make smart choices about its future identity and the marijuana trade.


Who is HIIMR?

HSU faculty make up most of the membership of the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research with at least one associate member from the community.

Here are some of the areas of study HSU faculty and others are pursuing through the institute:

Economics professor Beth Wilson is seeking ways to measure the size and scale of the marijuana economy in Humboldt County, and use those numbers to predict the potential economic impact of legalization.

Assistant business professor Michelle Lane is examining the economic, social and environmental impacts of large-scale cannabis production in the U.S.

Sociology lecturer Anthony Silvaggio is trying to determine the ecological and public health impacts of marijuana production in the rural portions of the county. As part of his research, Silvaggio used Google Earth satellite images to identify possible cultivation sites and compare historical images to show when the farms developed.

Sociology professor Elizabeth Watson is looking into the medical marijuana ethical issues faced by local physicians.

Anthropology lecturer Fred Krissman is interested in studying labor markets for cultivators and dispensary workers, particularly immigrant agricultural workers.

Psychology chair Gregg Gold hopes to determine how marijuana use affects health and how social perceptions of marijuana change attitudes and behaviors.

Geography assistant professor Monica Stephens is exploring methods of studying the "shadow economy" and marijuana pricing.

Community member Edie Butler is an associate member of the institute and a board member of the 420 Archive, which seeks to collect artifacts, oral histories and ephemera of Northern California's "marijuana phenomena."


Scheduled Events

The institute's speaker series has three scheduled events for spring 2014, including talks by Dr. Sheigla Murphy, who studies drug policy and effects of the war on drugs for the Institute for Scientific Analysis; San Francisco State University professor Martin D. Carcieri, whose most recent article in the Akron Law Review was titled "Obama, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Drug War"; and Sunil Kumar Aggarwal, a New York doctor who studies the pain relieving effects of medical marijuana.

For more information about the institute, and to watch archived videos of past guest speakers, visit

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