When federal agents visit a pot farm, it’s not by invitation—but it was this time.
Tom Lauerman, affectionately known as Farmer Tom, invited federal researchers to spend several days at his organic hippie grass-land (medical cannabis farm) in Vancouver, Washington to evaluate cannabis processing procedures. It was the first and only known time the feds have conducted friendly business on a privately owned pot farm. This is a big deal: the only federally approved cannabis research facility was established at the University of Mississippi in 1968.
Late in October 2015, four agents of the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) made their way to the pot farm’s “secure location,” according to the official documents—a point that gave Farmer Tom a chuckle. Also present was T.J. Lauritsen from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). Together, they were establishing safety standards and best practices for medical cannabis and cannabis workers by conducting a Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE).
Lauritsen said he selected Farmer Tom’s for the HHE after collaborating with him on some worker training materials. The union thought his small organic farm would be a good baseline entry for the feds to become familiar with the product and not overwhelm them with a large warehouse grow.
“I never thought in my life that by the time I turned 55, we would have federal agents welcomed onto my farm—asking to come to my farm—and I’d get to educate them about cannabis. It simply just blows my mind,” said Farmer Tom.
It is surprising, given the federal government’s official stance on cannabis, a “most dangerous” weed.
How It All Went Down
“TJ was telling me these things take a long time, but we started the conversation in May  and in June we had our first phone call,” said Farmer Tom.
The call revealed that the CDC agents “knew nothing” about cannabis. Farmer Tom invited them to the farm to introduce them to the community so they’d know what to expect from the proposed evaluation. That first trip was in August 2015.
Everyone got along great, he said. They even went out for beers together. “They looked on as we smoked weed throughout the day and saw that we were fully functional and engaged.”
As farm workers and federal agents got to know one another, the mood relaxed. Folks would hang out and chat in the outdoor kitchen, just a few steps from a charming art collection and a display of the season’s myriad squash varieties. This working farm grows cannabis, but it’s just one of several crops. Ever present and holding the show together was Farmer Tom’s wife and partner, Paula.
NIOSH agents outfitted Farmer Tom and a few others in “sniffer” vests that measured the air quality surrounding the workers. The air quality inside the processing greenhouse was also measured for comparison to the ambient air of the farm.
As workers trimmed bud, they wore a specialized glove with sensors to measure frequency of movement, analyzing for potential repetitive motion issues. Various surfaces were swabbed looking for potential contaminants, such as molds and other allergens. Results are expected to take nearly a year.
How Federal Agents Can Visit A Cannabis Farm
Cannabis is still federally registered as a Schedule I narcotic, among the most dangerous. The qualification means that there is no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
“For us, it’s because it’s a legal workspace in the state of Washington,” said NIOSH spokesperson Christy Spring. “We received a valid legal request from a legal employer. So it’s not a matter of judging whether or not the product being manufactured is legal as much as the fact that under the state law this is a legal workplace. Our interest is the occupational health and safety aspect of it. There has been a lot of curiosity, but we’ve heard no criticism.”
“The HHE process is initiated by a request for safety guidelines from employers, employees, or unions,” said lead field investigator James Couch. “NIOSH can either point them to existing information for their occupations or choose to do a new evaluation. In this case, cannabis is fairly new, especially in the occupational health world. There’s really nothing out there.” Farmer Tom’s request was considered to be a “novel” workplace exposure, ripe for an HHE.
Indeed, Couch conducted a literature review and found no other information from any other federal agency looking into the cannabis industry.
Speaking with Couch, it’s easy to see the value of the HHE program. There just aren’t a lot of research groups with a rapid response that’s capable of getting ahead of these emerging occupational hazards and getting out into the field to look at real-time exposures.
Even in the world of legalized cannabis, Farmer Tom is a pioneer. There isn’t many organic small farm grows. The majority of farmers use pesticides and harmful chemicals, but Farmer Tom is setting the bar higher for the entire industry.
“I think it’s all about baby steps,” he said. “My position on this is just to normalize cannabis. Any way you can get the feds out here—if you can get them out here—is a huge step.”