Northern California's Humboldt County has a reputation among college students that has nothing to do with academics. So much of the nation's high-grade marijuana grows there that one recent study offered this rule of thumb: the farther from Humboldt, the higher the price.
Humboldt State University used to shun any association with the local community's marijuana cultivation, sensing that proximity to big pot patches and a vast underground economy would not be selling points among the parents of prospective students. The university has made a point of strictly banning the stuff, telling students who are allowed it for medical reasons under California law to live off campus and leave their stashes at home.
With marijuana laws and social attitudes rapidly changing, however, Humboldt State has decided to embrace its distinct ability to closely observe the little-known marijuana industry. With the blessing of the California State University system, the university last year established the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research, devoted to studying—and serving as a clearinghouse for research on—the growth, sale, consumption, and regulation of cannabis.
"We are uniquely qualified to be studying marijuana and its impacts," says Josh Meisel, an associate professor of sociology who is the institute's co-director. In operating such an institute, he says, Humboldt State is "acknowledging that the marijuana industry exerts a substantial influence on the economic health and social fabric of this community."
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have passed measures legalizing medical marijuana, and voters in two of those states—Colorado and Washington—made its recreational use legal last November. Most past research on marijuana, however, has assumed its illegality and focused almost solely on the negative health consequences of consuming it.
The Humboldt institute seeks to answer the sorts of questions that seemed off-limits to researchers so long as cannabis was banned. Among them: Can people consume any amount of marijuana safely before driving? How does having access to legal marijuana affect the likelihood that a person will abuse alcohol? How much would consumption of marijuana rise if legalization drove its price way down?
Beau Kilmer, a co-director of the nonprofit RAND Corporation's Drug Policy Research Center, says that when he and his colleagues first tried to determine the likely consequences of marijuana legalization, "one of our takeaways was that a lot of the data you would need to do that exercise just isn't available."
Answering all of the questions that stem from legalization "should keep us busy for a few decades," says Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles whose drug-policy consulting firm, Botec Analysis Corporation, recently landed a contract with the Washington State Liquor Control Board to advise it in carrying out marijuana legalization. "There is lots of work to do," he says.
David T. Courtwright, a professor of history at the University of North Florida and a past president of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, says he does not see states shifting their marijuana laws toward total legalization, but rather toward something akin to the treatment of alcohol under Prohibition. Noting that Prohibition was not absolute—the federal law that carried out the Eighteenth Amendment still allowed home production of wine and hard cider, and let physicians prescribe whiskey—he expects the states that legalize some uses of marijuana to similarly impose tight restrictions on its production and sale.
"We are just on the cusp of being able to address the fascinating, and very important, questions about the positive consequences of marijuana use."
Although scholars have been producing work critical of drug policies for decades, laws against marijuana have greatly hindered efforts to study the drug's impact. Medical researchers, for example, tend to exclude questions about marijuana from long-term health surveys for fear of reducing response rates. "We are, essentially, as knowledgeable about marijuana's health effects as we were about tobacco's 50 years ago, which is a pretty miserable place to be in," says Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy and criminology at the University of Maryland at College Park and the founder of RAND's Drug Policy Research Center. The amount of nonmedical research on marijuana "is really tiny," he says. For example, "there are almost no studies of the industry of marijuana production."
Roger A. Roffman, a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Washington at Seattle who has been studying the health effects of marijuana since the late 1960s, says, "If the people you want to study have to mask their identities and what they are doing because of the dangers of criminal prosecution, it makes it hard to have faith that you are collecting data that is representative and reliable and valid." Because medical research on marijuana has focused almost exclusively on any harm caused by it, he says, "we are just on the cusp of being able to address the fascinating, and very important, questions about the positive consequences of marijuana use," such as whether it helps people with psychological conditions like depression.
California lawmakers have come to regret that state's slowness to impose a regulatory framework on medical marijuana, which has opened the door to illegal growers, shady dispensaries, and other abuses that have helped prompt federal raids. The Washington State measure, which counted Roffman as one of its sponsors, seeks to avoid such problems by calling for marijuana to be regulated and taxed, and earmarking for marijuana research part of the revenue from taxes and fees imposed on growers and sellers. Erick Eschker, a professor of economics at Humboldt State and co-director of its marijuana institute, says he foresees providing such states with research and policy analysis to guide their regulatory efforts.
"Ultimately, the decisions you make about production, regulation, and taxation are going to shape what happens with consumption and revenue," says Kilmer, of the RAND center. "If you see a large reduction in price and its advertising is allowed, we would expect consumption to go up," he says. "If the taxes are set too high, you could still have a black market."
The Humboldt institute's charter calls for it to undertake "only objective, data supported efforts," and bars it from engaging in advocacy. So far it has shown a willingness to look at the downsides of legalization; in October and again in April, for example, the institute held symposia with sessions examining the harm that marijuana growers can do to the environment.
The list of Humboldt State faculty members connected with the center suggests that its scholarship will also be wide-ranging. Monica Stephens, the author of the study showing a correlation between pot prices and distance from Humboldt, is a lecturer in geography. Anthony Silvaggio, a lecturer in sociology, plans to study how marijuana production affects public health in rural communities. The institute's visibility, Eschker says, has led many scholars at other colleges to contact it. Several have contributed to a new, special issue of the Humboldt Journal of Social Relations titled "Current Perspectives on Marijuana and Society." It includes articles on how people become marijuana growers and on the use of marijuana to reduce medical patients' reliance on prescription narcotics.
Peter Bensinger, who led the Drug Enforcement Administration under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan and has been urging the Obama administration to take a harder line against marijuana legalization, says he would urge the Humboldt institute to study the social costs of marijuana legalization, which he sees as greatly exceeding any revenue derived by taxing it. Where marijuana is legalized, he says, "grades go down and accidents go up."
Perhaps the biggest question confronted by the Humboldt institute is whether marijuana is truly legal anywhere in the United States, at least in any way that is going to last.
Although California voters passed the first medical marijuana law back in 1996, and the District of Columbia is now home to a dispensary within view of the U.S. Capitol, under federal law, marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance, illegal to grow, sell, or possess. The U.S. Justice Department, while showing little interest in prosecuting seriously ill medical users or their caregivers, has raided dispensaries in Arizona and California. It could mount a broader effort to bring the states into line with federal law, a move that almost certainly would lead to fights in Congress and the courts over the limits of the federal government's power.
The Humboldt institute's charter calls for its immediate dissolution if it promotes or supports illegal activities or accepts funds originating from illegal sources. The institute has responded to the current legal ambiguity over marijuana by taking a cautious approach, assuming a need to comply with federal law and treat marijuana as illegal. Meisel says the university's desire to disassociate itself from illegal pot growing remains "a source of concern in terms of thinking about the sorts of things that the institute does."
A federal crackdown on states that have legalized marijuana would at the very least shift the Humboldt institute's focus away from research that is being made possible by legalization measures or is designed to help states carry such measures out. Legalization at the federal level, on the other hand, would force the institute to grapple with a whole new set of ethical questions, like those faced by organizations that do research on tobacco or pharmaceuticals. Would it accept funds for research from marijuana growers or sellers? How could it ensure its independence? "We don't want to be accused of having an industry drive our results. That would be awful for us," Eschker says.
University administrators helped pave the way for the institute to be chartered by writing glowing statements of support for it and its mission of rigorous scholarship. Since the institute's establishment, however, Humboldt State's administration has reined it in a few times, telling it to keep marijuana-leaf images off its Web site, and to scrap a planned symposium session on "best management practices in marijuana agriculture" as potentially supporting illegal activity. "We want this institute to be taken with the utmost scientific seriousness," says Paul S. Mann, a university spokesman.
Meisel says chartering the institute within the university "has created a structure of obligation" which leaves the institute with less academic freedom than an individual faculty member might have. "We understand the university's perspective," he says.
The institute's existence has already brought the university one public-relations headache, in the form of a November segment on the late-night Jimmy Kimmel show in which the comedian subjected Humboldt State to a barrage of stoner jokes. Kimmel quipped that people at the institute will just end up playing Frisbee, and that to get into Humboldt State "you have to fail a lot of very rigorous drug tests."
Meisel said many Humboldt State students were upset with the bit, but he has made peace with what locals call "the snicker factor," the humor associated with the county's illicit crop. Such humor "actually has served to our advantage," he says. "We have that brand recognition, if you will."