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HSU brings pot thought to the ivory tower with a marijuana studies working group

Associate Professor Ronnie Swartz leaned back, looking remarkably comfortable in the decidedly uncomfortable chairs of room 115 in Humboldt State University's Siemen's Hall. Swartz, a man with salt-and-pepper hair and a young face, had just finished delivering a presentation on the use of medical marijuana in substance abuse treatment programs. Now in his 11th year at HSU and his second year as chair of the Department of Social Work, Swartz said the local region's well-established reputation as a marijuana mecca doesn't bother him.

"There are bigger problems out there. The marijuana stigma just sort of is," he said. Rather than ignore or combat that "stigma," Swartz has decided to analyze the industry behind it as a member of HSU's Marijuana Studies Working Group.

Swartz's lecture was one third of a three-part presentation that the working group held last Friday. The other two presenters were Sociology graduate student Colin Trujillo, who presented his Master's thesis, Marijuana, Mexico and the Media, and Economics Professor Erick Eschker, who outlined his plans to track monthly production of marijuana in Humboldt County.

The working group is an interdisciplinary collection of faculty, mainly from the social sciences, who meet once or twice a month, according to Associate Professor of Sociology Josh Meisel, who coordinated Friday's presentations. "About eight faculty members meet monthly and additional faculty and staff members are on our mailing list," Meisel said. "Collectively we are researching the social, health, economic and environmental impacts of marijuana. Our long-term vision is to create a national center for interdisciplinary research on marijuana."

Meisel said that given the cultural and financial significance of cannabis in the so-called Emerald Triangle of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties, HSU is well positioned for this research. "Beyond our geographic proximity to marijuana-growing areas and the communities impacted, we have a faculty and institutional vision that places emphasis on environmental responsibility and social justice. We're interested in capitalizing on this geographic advantage and international reputation."

Friday's presentation, which was attended by roughly 20 people -- including a surprise appearance by HSU President Rollin Richmond, who has often lamented the negative effects of local marijuana production -- was only the second of its kind.

"This is a much better turnout compared to last year's event," said Meisel. "President Richmond's attendance at this forum is indicative of his understanding of the importance of an active research agenda in this area for HSU."

Professor Eschker said he'd like to add marijuana production data to the Humboldt Economic Index, a monthly report on the county's economy. Currently the index tracks six sectors of the local economy: employment, manufacturing, home sales, retail sales, hospitality and electricity consumption. Eschker believes that an accurate measure of marijuana production will show that it has a strong correlation with county employment.

That accurate measure will be no mean feat, however. Eschker aims to document the number of one-pound bags of dried, trimmed marijuana produced in Humboldt County every month. This undertaking is difficult for obvious reasons -- the main one being a lack of willing data providers. Legal producers and distributors -- those associated with medical marijuana dispensaries -- are generally receptive to providing information. Illegal growers? Not so much.

"While we are trying to go out in the hills and find people off the grid, we are relying heavily on key inputs like outdoor trimming machines and turkey bags," said Eschker. (Turkey bags, valued for their scent-concealing properties, are often used to package and transport marijuana.) "We can track marijuana production by tracking marijuana-related goods," Eschker explained.

He's hopeful that this indirect data will make up for a lack of direct data. He and his student interns have found several retailers and dispensaries that are on board for the project.

But the esteemed professor hasn't given up on finding assistance from the underground economy. "I don't need a name and I don't need an address," said Eschker. "I just need a contact number where I can reach the person once a month. Anyone interested in being a part of the index can contact me directly."

Eschker, along with Swartz, hopes the formation of a center or an institute will put faculty in a stronger position to apply for research funding.

"Right now we are trying to find the best way to gain legitimacy," Swartz said. "We are acting thoughtfully, purposefully and cautiously."

It looks like Swartz doesn't need to worry about resistance from the university's administration: Richmond supports the working group. "Even though Humboldt ranks seventh or eighth out of pot-producing counties in the state of California we still have that reputation as a large marijuana producer," the university president said. "We are not going to get rid of that notion, so why not take advantage of it?"

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