VANCOUVER, Wash. -- It's an unprecedented event in the history of marijuana in this country. Federal researchers spent most of the week on a working medical marijuana farm in Vancouver, Washington to study the occupational hazards of growing and processing marijuana.
The study was unprecedented because marijuana is still a Schedule 1 drug and illegal in the eyes of the federal government. It's in the same class as heroin, methamphetamines and LSD. For years, federally funded research on marijuana has been restricted because of its classification. Meanwhile, many states are moving to legalize it.
Now a team of four researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have descended on Tom Lauerman's medical marijuana operation east of Vancouver to watch, chronicle and collect data that could be used to develop federal best practice standards for workers in the marijuana industry. The team has never set foot on any legal marijuana operation. Until now, they only exposure has been in a lab setting at the University of Mississippi.
"This is novel for us," said the lead researcher with NIOSH, who we were not allowed to identify.
NIOSH is one of the centers that make up the Centers for Disease Control that is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Researchers outfitted Farmer Tom, as he is known, and several of his workers with electronic air sniffers to study the air quality inside the greenhouses and processing facility while they worked. The researchers also used a specialized glove with sensors tied to a laptop that tracked the repetitive hand movements of workers trimming marijuana buds.
The focus of the researchers is not what is being manufactured, but how. The ergonomics, work environment, air sniffers for microbial dispersion and allergens in the air are part of this study. The kind of study is not new, what's new is it's the first at a marijuana farm.
"I never thought in my life that by the time I'm 55 in the year 2015, that we would have federal agents welcomed onto my farm," said Laurmen, a well-known marijuana advocate. "It just blows my mind."
A spokeswoman for NIOSH says there's no conflict with federal law because the researchers are studying the working conditions of legal workers in a legal work environment.
"This the first time we have visited a grower," said NIOSH spokeswoman Christy Spring.
The research team just doesn't show up, they had to be invited. Spring says the agency got a request from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
Lauerman says he made the request through the union because he eventually wants marijuana workers, including his own, to have workplace protections.
"Nobody has any idea what makes a safe workplace, it's a new industry," said Lauerman. "I'm honored to have them here."
Several representatives from the UFCW International Headquarter in Washington DC were also at the farm taking notes and learning the business along with the researchers. UFCW represents about 150 marijuana workers in Washington state but none on Lauerman's farm.
"I've done allot of jobs where they are cutting and trimming, but for a plant like this, it's something new, it's unique," Joseph Rezac, an industrial engineer for UFCW who studies workplace environments. "It's the first time I've been on a marijuana operation, I'm learning too".
It will be at least a year before the findings by the researchers are released.