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UC Pot Researchers Working with 'Gray Literature'

Conference highlights all the obstacles that hamstring scientific inquiries into cannabis.

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Here's a weird fact: there is no industry standard for how much water a cannabis plant requires. Four gallons a day? Six? Growers are left to ask their friends, look at possibly-dicey web sites, and experiment for themselves. Growers of tomatoes or corn, meanwhile, can easily find such information by looking it up on the USDA's web site, or asking their local extension representative. Most of them don't have to, though: the information is widely known, and has been for many decades. One of the first things a corn grower learns is how much water to apply to the crop. For pot growers, it's still a matter of debate — and, to some degree, speculation.

This is just one of countless examples of how stymied the people researching cannabis are by obnoxious restrictions. That's not only because pot is only newly legal, but also because it's still outlawed under the federal code. Growers and researchers also must contend with the stigma that pot attracts, especially in the rural areas where much of it is grown. And there are still many illicit pot growers in places like the Emerald Triangle, as there have been for decades. In general, they would prefer to not be researched.

The problem was brought into sharp relief last week when the Cannabis Research Center at UC Berkeley made its first formal presentation of the work that it's been doing. The center began operating at the beginning of the year to "promote interdisciplinary scholarship on the social and environmental dimensions of cannabis production." Every one of the five researchers who spoke during the presentation addressed the often-ridiculous restrictions under which they still operate. As Chronic Town reported recently, researchers in public universities all over the state aren't even allowed to be around pot plants, thanks to the federal ban — a mighty hurdle for people studying health effects, cultivation methods, pest-management techniques, and the like.

"It's a tricky problem," observed center Co-Director Van Butsic, an adjunct professor who specializes in land use. "We don't want our researchers to stay in the academy."

But stay in the academy they often must. Not always, though. Phoebe Parker-Shames, a grad student, is able to do some fieldwork as part of her research on the interactions between cannabis farming and wildlife, and how they affect each other. She showed some pretty nifty nighttime photos of various critters, like coyotes and bears, sniffing around cannabis farms in the Emerald Triangle region. Since she makes a lot of use of satellite imagery, and generally sticks to the perimeters of farms to set up her cameras, she doesn't have to worry quite as much as some other researchers about getting near pot plants. But of course she could do much more if the shackles were removed.

The challenge is greater for researchers who deal with problems such as water use. Ted Grantham, a center co-director who studies hydrology, said he would like to know the full dimensions of illegal water use — i.e. "sucking water tables dry" — which is a big problem in the Emerald Triangle and elsewhere. He's collected a lot of anecdotal data, but also knows how little he knows. "We really don't know how representative these practices are." Grantham noted that with stories all over the media with headlines such as "Is Weed The New Almonds?" — a crop that has gotten a lot of attention, including in this newspaper, for how much water it consumes — we would all be better off knowing the extent to which cannabis cultivation represents a threat to water systems in drought-plagued California.

Houston Wilson, an entomologist at UC Riverside who's looking for ways to reduce pesticide use by cannabis growers, said that much of the industry, and hence many researchers, still rely heavily on what he called "gray literature." Even now, nearly two years into full legality, there is an absence of reliable data, partly because with pesticides, "nothing is officially registered for use on cannabis."

The real shame of all this is that, as Wilson noted, "there is a strong sustainability slant to cannabis production." The business, after all, is centered in places like California, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest, and it tends to attract crunchy types — both producers and consumers. Consequently, many cannabis companies like to brag about their sustainability practices. That will become much easier once cannabis is treated just like any other crop.

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