The Columbian / Associated Press

Pot farm helps feds develop foundation for standards

Hunter Lauritsen, from left, and Maisen Ochoa trim the leaves from marijuana plants at Tom Lauerman's medical marijuana farm. The men wore vests with toxin monitoring devices that were collecting microbes from the air for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (Ariane Kunze/The Columbian)

On a July afternoon in 1999, San Diego police descended on an apartment building where Tom Lauerman was tending to 448 illegal marijuana plants. Lauerman was arrested and spent the night in the slammer.

Sixteen years later, on a 5-acre farm in Vancouver, Lauerman is once again surrounded by pot plants. This time, federal officials are buzzing around his farm with no handcuffs in sight.

Lauerman — who now goes by Farmer Tom — has invited the government agents who are working to improve safety standards in the now-legal pot cultivation industry.

On this rainy afternoon, the organic farm Lauerman runs with his wife, Paula, is abuzz with non-threatening government activity. His Vancouver farm is a testing ground where regulators hope to gain knowledge to create standards for an industry that has operated underground for decades and remains illegal in all but four states and the District of Columbia.

Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, considered by the federal government to be the most dangerous of drugs. The classification puts marijuana in the same category as heroin. But with the marijuana landscape quickly changing, and thousands of people already employed on cannabis farms in states where it’s been legalized, the researchers are hoping to gain an understanding for what occupational safety and health standards should exist.

Lauerman walks around the farm sporting a khaki fishing vest equipped with an electronic monitor. The electronic sniffer pulls in air on one end and filters it to tubes that will be later analyzed in a lab. The four federal employees, working for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, attached the monitors to the vest and gave them to Lauerman and a handful of his employees to wear.

The federal officials, whose office falls under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, declined to speak on the record. Since marijuana is illegal at the federal level, they didn’t feel at liberty to discuss their research or names in detail.

Steep learning curve

The researchers flew in for the week from different parts of the country. Each one examined a different aspect of the working conditions on the pot farm.

One of the agents considered ergonomics: Could repetitive bud trimming cause cumulative trauma disorder?

Another gathered air-quality samples. Later, she will examine whether there any toxins in the soil or resins on the plants that could cause allergies.

Since the industry is illegal at the federal level, research has been restricted.

One of the researchers admitted the learning curve is steep. In part, because the industry has no standardized terms, there is also a new language to learn. If the safety experts were to walk into a meat-packing plant or poultry farm, they would know what the dechlorination process entails. But here, de-stemming, bud stripping, and shucking are processes that all mean the same thing.

Joining the federal officials on the farm that afternoon were union representatives from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Lauerman said he’s excited his workers will be unionized. He wants to see them make a living wage and have an expectation of a safe working environment, just like any other business.

TJ Lauritsen, a union representative based in Washington, D.C., trimmed the marijuana buds off the stem with a couple of Lauerman’s employes.

Manufacturing jobs have left the country, Lauritsen said, and the union wants to stay relevant by attracting workers in the pot industry.

“It’s a new industry that’s not going to export the jobs out of the country,” he said.