To run these advanced facilities, cannabis companies need researchers who are experienced in plant science, microbiology, chemistry and other scientific disciplines — and they are turning to academia to find them. “Instead of underground growers, they are hiring lots of university-educated and trained people,” says Zheng.
For years, the popular image of cannabis growers has been scruffy hippies getting high on their own supply in a disorganized underground economy, rather than shiny white industrial agriculture facilities. Even larger-scale operations involved minimal quality control or lacked formal record keeping.
As the cannabis industry expands, the role of good science within it will also expand, and there will be further opportunities for collaboration. “More and more,” says Zheng, “the scientific community and industry are directly communicating and sharing information.”
In the United Kingdom, for example, strict rules concerning THC levels in medical cannabis mean that labs can find it difficult to get the sample analytical standards that they need for comparing products. The licences required to handle the standards are the same as those needed by a lab doing research on the drug itself. “It’s ludicrous that analytical standards are so tightly controlled,” says James. “The cannabis products are treated the same as a kilo of cocaine.”
Independent testing labs have sprung up to help growers to meet the requirements, but like the wider cannabis industry, they face growing pains. “At the moment it’s a bit like the Wild West, with different rules in different places,” says Andrew James, marketing director of Ellutia in Ely, UK, which makes chemical analysis equipment for the cannabis industry, among other markets. “It can be hard to know what to test for, how to test and where to do it.”
“There’s no telling what you’ll run into out there,” said Chris Boehm, Deputy Director of Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations. Many sites harbor booby traps, and the growers themselves are often armed. Law enforcement agents are trained to safely navigate most of these hazards, but if members of the recreating public encounter a grow site, the situation can quickly turn unsafe.
Researchers frequently find dead squirrels, bears, and birds, and other animals killed by the pesticides used on these grow sites. Once an animal consumes and dies from pesticides, the chemicals continue powering through the entire food web as scavengers feed upon poisoned carcasses. At one site, researchers found a dead fox, a dead vulture that had been feeding on the fox, and dead insects that had landed on both.
“Some of the [pesticide] is so concentrated animals die in a matter of minutes, if not seconds,” said Forest Service researcher Craig Thompson.
Many grow sites are in remote locations and difficult to access, making remediation efforts challenging and costly. Helicopters must be used to air-lift tons of garbage and miles of irrigation piping. Partial HAZMAT protocols must be followed, and decontamination kits used to contain and clean up the waste.
Cannabis Growth Timeline
Female: Two pistils (the pistil contains the reproductive parts of a flower) will be growing on the buds (flowers grow above these leaves, one cluster on each side).
3. Vegetative Growth
How to tell if your plant is a male or female
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