Cannabis conundrum: California researchers struggling to get their hands on it

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While Humboldt State University is located in the heart of cannabis country, undergrad students who want to study the county’s biggest cash crop say they aren’t allowed to touch the stuff or even get near it in a research setting.

The policy is drawing concerns from both university students and local researchers, including those at HSU’s Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research, the expressed objective of which is to “serve as a clearinghouse of marijuana-related research.”

Fletcher Kennamer, a sociology student, said it’s kind of an absurd policy that makes local cannabis research an arduous process.

Kennamer said his internship at a cannabis company was denied earlier this year by HSU because it meant he would have direct contact with cannabis.

“They said all of their funding could get pulled, so we’re not going to let you do this,” he said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous … this isn’t a dangerous product.”

Kennamer said he applied with a cannabis company to do market research. The arrangement would’ve placed him in dispensaries across the region as he worked to promote products, spread brand recognition and more. As a workaround, Kennamer was officially hired by the company, a move he said “makes them liable,” instead of the university. He now spends three days a week as an employee for the company and the hours he works are credited as internship hours. The other two days, he’s a full-time student.

“I had to exploit a loophole to do what I wanted to do,” Kennamer said. “I’m sitting in marijuana central. I can’t imagine doing social research on something else.”

Kennamer said he’s frustrated with the difficulties he’s encountered while studying ground zero of “a new emerging industry.” It doesn’t make sense that he’s had to work so hard to pursue his research interests, he said.

University stance

While medical marijuana is decriminalized in 33 states and 10 states have decriminalized recreational marijuana, the drug remains illegal under federal law.

HSU follows “federal guidelines for cannabis research, due to the fact that (the university will) receive federal aid in the form of student financial aid (and other forms),” HSU spokesman Grant Scott-Goforth said in an email.

“Marijuana for use in research can be obtained only through the National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse Drug Supply Program,” he said. “Federal guidelines apply to all campus researchers.”

This means if a student wanted to measure the water consumption of cannabis plants on a nearby cannabis farm, they’d be prohibited from doing so, Scott-Goforth said. He added that “there are opportunities for students to do a wide variety of hands-on research, including that related to cannabis.”

Kennamer disagrees. “It’s the exact opposite,” Kennamer said. “It’s very ironic (HSU says) there’s opportunity for hands-on research because the reason I was denied the internship is because I’d be able to physically touch marijuana flower. That’s a bold-faced lie.”

While the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research might offer research opportunities, they’re far from hands-on, Kennamer said. Much of the research conducted by HIIMR is discourse- or data-driven, he said, which can be easily misleading — underscoring the need for ac

Anthony Silvaggio, a sociology professor at HSU, does research through the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research.

Anthony Silvaggio, a sociology professor at HSU, said the struggle is nothing new. Silvaggio, who does research with HIIMR, said his research is primarily restricted to paper-based methods. Professors, and occasionally grad students, can do off-site studies, but the presence of cannabis in any form is prohibited on campus.

Silvaggio’s been working for over a decade to study the cannabis industry, during which he said he’s experienced roadblocks similar to Kennamer’s on a regular basis.

“It is exhausting to have to have these conversations about faculty-student cannabis research with administrators and risk managers year after year after year,” Silvaggio wrote in an email to HSU administrators that was shared with the Times-Standard. “Policy decisions are made without any consultation with the experts, and instead, (are) made based on fear.”

Severed relationship

Around the time Kennamer’s internship was denied, HSU severed a long-standing partnership with the Humboldt Patient Resource Center, a cannabis dispensary in Arcata.

Mariellen Jurkovich, the dispensary’s executive director, said she’s worked with interns from HSU for eight to 10 years. Students from departments ranging from English to criminal justice studies interned with the dispensary on a myriad of projects, she said, until about January, when HSU contacted her to sever the arrangement.

Jurkovich said that in her years of working with HPRC, she’s become used to the flip-flops that come with the cannabis industry. So when the university told her they were removing her from the list of almost 400 approved “Learning Site Agreements,” she wasn’t surprised.

“I totally understand it,” she said. “It’s been a really great relationship … I find great value in the students at HSU.”

She said the move amounts to a savvy business decision on HSU’s part as it tries to protect its funding. But Jurkovich also laments how the policy hampers the educational opportunities presented to students at HSU.

“Kids are very interested in cannabis, and it’s a time that it’s never been,” she said. “They can’t come directly to work in a place they’re trying to study … they don’t get to see the real world.”

Jurkovich said she hopes to see the “mainstream” change in time, and looks forward to working with the university again.

HSU said, CSU said

Even though the dispensary is no longer an approved learning site, HSU spokesman Scott-Goforth said the university couldn’t comment on specific agreements because it doesn’t want “to jeopardize (the university’s) relationships with these businesses — they can be an important part of students’ experiential learning.”

When asked about the motive behind the dispensary’s removal from the list of approved Learning Site Agreements, Scott-Goforth said the CSU Office of General Counsel “has recommended that university not place students (i.e. internships) in learning environments that are based on possession and distribution of a controlled substance, illegal under federal law.”

California State University spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp said, in terms of systemwide policy, the CSU has “never issued anything specific to research.”

“That would be a campus-based decision,” he said, referring to HSU’s approval of Learning Site Agreements. “Research or other things related to (cannabis) does always need to comply with federal law.”

The CSU might consider crafting a policy guiding cannabis research if the amount of research on the topic increased on a systemwide level, Uhlenkamp said.

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“I don’t know if we’re at that point yet,” he said. “Where we weigh in is when things affect the entire university system.”

Uhlenkamp said there is a potential for review on an ad hoc basis, noting a program at Sonoma State University which allows minors to take part in a class where wine and beer are tasted.

Silvaggio said he remains frustrated at what he says is CSU “picking and choosing what federal laws they want to challenge,” referring to the university system’s approach to the issue of immigration and federal enforcement of immigration laws.

“The entire CSU and UC system is in opposition to the president, ICE, and federal law, and we ‘advocate openly’ (as we should) for our Dreamers, every day, risking criminal and civil penalties, and potential loss of federal funding,” Silvaggio wrote in an email to the Times-Standard, adding he is supportive of the policy. “However, when it comes to our students doing research on cannabis or interning at cannabis-related businesses, I am told that we will not allow this because it breaks federal law and ‘puts our students at risk.’ ”

When asked to respond to the comparison, HSU spokesman Scott-Goforth said the university’s services for undocumented students have nothing to do with cannabis or cannabis regulation.

Silvaggio said he maintains that the two examples highlight the institution’s hypocrisy when it comes to enforcing federal laws, adding that policymakers are spreading an “imagined” threat which has more to do with the “reefer madness” stigma than it does with empirical facts.

Crackdown concerns

HSU has “no idea” what the probability of a federal crackdown would be if they deviated from federal guidelines, according to Scott-Goforth.

Dominic Corva, a cannabis researcher, says it’s highly unlikely there will be a federal crackdown associated with cannabis research in the CSU system.

Silvaggio, as well as Dominic Corva, founder and executive director of the Seattle-based Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy, both say it’s highly unlikely the feds would go after the CSU system or the students in it for studying cannabis.

“Their assessment of that risk, as I understand it, is pretty far off base,” said Corva, who has researched the local cannabis industry extensively, and who also spoke at a recent panel discussion of its depiction in the Netflix series “Murder Mountain.”

“It comes across as kind of passing the buck,” Corva said of CSU’s approach. “Federal retaliation would come first against states themselves.”

The threat of federal intervention as a justification to constrict cannabis research to hands-off projects is a “flimsy excuse,” he said, calling into question the need to honor the mission of higher education.

“If students can’t research significant changes going around them in society, how does that help their educational process?” Corva said. “I feel like a university’s mission is to actually give them the kind of experience that allows them to operate in the world as it is rather than in the world as they wish it would be.”

HSU, he added, “has the opportunity to lead” because it’s uniquely situated where the domestic cannabis industry was born.

“In a weird schizophrenic kind of way, the reality is way ahead and the powers that be are behind,” Corva said. “It will take something very big to make them move and that very big thing will have to be federal legalization which could be years away — that kind of timeline is sort of absurd.”

In January at his Senate confirmation hearing, Attorney General nominee William Barr indicated that he would support Obama-era cannabis guidelines.

“My approach to this would be not to upset settled expectations and the reliant interests that have arisen as a result of the Cole Memorandum,” Barr said, referring to the memo written by then-U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who directed U.S. attorneys to “not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

When asked if Barr’s statement held any weight for HSU’s policy, HSU spokesman Scott-Goforth said the university does not “change (its) approach based on every new statement or speech by officials.”

Corva called HSU’s response a dismissal of Barr’s comments, reflective of “a misunderstanding of what that statement does.”

“It shows they’re just inflexible,” Corva said. “It’s following something anachronistic and out of touch.”

Scott-Goforth said the “university will assess any changes in federal laws, as appropriate.”

Cannabis that the government allows to be researched (pictured) is lower-grade than what is available at retail outlets, researchers say.

Federally acceptable research

Until then, the university will continue to abide by federal guidelines for researching cannabis, utilizing the National Institute for Drug Abuse program, which funds the only federal Drug Enforcement Administration-licensed cultivation of marijuana for research at the University of Mississippi.

Brad Burge, director of strategic communication at the Santa Cruz-based nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, said the NIDA program only provides researches with a processed product.

“It’s a finely-ground blend of different strains of cannabis that are genetically overproduced,” he said, adding that the seeds, stems and leaves of cannabis plants are all mixed in. “The cannabis you can get at any retail outlet is far superior.”

When asked about the utility of NIDA-sourced cannabis for HSU-based research, Silvaggio said it is “basically useless.”

“It’s not good material for good science,” he said. “They’re limited strains under conditions which you have no control over and they don’t reflect the conditions in California.”

Additionally, he said, the requirement puts student projects requiring something other than a processed product, such as studying cannabis plants as they grow, out of the picture. Any cannabis plant material is prohibited from campus, Silvaggio said.

“We have so little knowledge on what the plant needs, like water requirements,” he said. “We have to rely on what growers tell us.”

The formula invites misinformed policy, Silvaggio said. For example, many cite six gallons as the average daily water consumption of a cannabis plant, a figure derived from a group of cannabis growers several years ago which Silvaggio said was “highly inaccurate.”

The method glides over the nuances pertaining to specific strains, grow sites, and other variables which need to be measured under controlled conditions — something that cannot happen with the current policy, he said.

Because private companies don’t operate under the same restrictions as the CSU system, they’re rapidly positioning themselves to dominate the market as federal legalization approaches, Silvaggio said.

“This stuff should be public research, we should have that owned by everyone because it could really help facilitate the development of a stronger and ecologically sustainable industry here … when you rely on industry for data about their activities you’re going to get the industry line,” he said. “It’s just really frustrating for folks not to see it, it’s so obvious.”​

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