Marijuana grows: Bad-as-meth-labs study based on clown science?

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Officials with the Colorado Drug Investigators Association yesterday announced the results of a study that showed the potential dangers that marijuana grow houses pose to law enforcement officers and the greater community. Not surprising, the study found that having a sloppy, common-sense-free indoor garden (of any kind) can create borderline-hazardous conditions.

The reefer madness clown science study was conducted by National Jewish Health's Dr. John Martyny after several law enforcement groups became concerned with environmental conditions inside grow operations they were encountering. The study looked at 24 grow operations identified by police, in which officers had either torn out the gardens due to illegal growing or made contact with growers claiming to be medical marijuana caregivers. Several tests, including mold spore samples, were conducted inside and outside of the grows to measure how much mold was present and what kind of mold it was, as well as what -- if any -- other contaminants might be present.

At the press conference to announce the results of the study, Martyny said there is no set standard to determine severe exposure to mold, but the generally accepted practice is that anything over ten times the equivalent of outdoor mold levels is not healthy. According to him, eight of the thirty grows examined had an average mold spore count at that level -- and some had so much mold that the reading was literally off the charts.

"There's been sort of a general acceptance that any time the mold levels are ten times the outside level, we are actually having mold growing in the house and it's very likely to be causing or will cause health problems for people," Martyny said. "Especially people who have to clean that house."

You can read the entire report below; it's also posted on the CDIA website. But basically, the analysis found that the average spore count was higher outside than it was inside at five of the grow houses, and the rest fell somewhere around five times the outdoor limit. Data also showed an increase in Penicillium, a mold that can be particularly harmful in large amounts or to people with immune problems. That's nothing to laugh at, and it was one of the few points Martyny and company made about the dangers of grow rooms that holds water.

Dirty, nasty grows are no joke, and mold can really be bad for your respiratory system when you live in it. And frankly, judging by the pictures of the filthy grow rooms and data from at least one of the grows, I can understand some of the study-conductors' concerns.

The pictures they showed of carpeted grow rooms, where some plants lacked drain pans and electrical cables ran through murky, half-filled ones, and vent caps were removed from hot water heaters to increase Co2 in the basement, were startling. Stuff like this is horrifying to anyone who knows what a clean, nicely run grow operation can look like.

And that is the one thing the study completely neglects to acknowledge: Clean home grows or legitimate medical marijuana grow facilities can be just as well-maintained as any other legal, commercial growing facility or home-hobby grow. Indeed, the data hints at that being the case. Note one grow with eleven plants, at which both the average and the range of mold spores inside were considerably less than outside.

Jim Gerhardt, CDIA spokesman, said twenty of the grows studied had a "medical marijuana component." One was a large warehouse grow containing multiple gardens, and the person in charge of it claimed to be with a dispensary. Another large grow was in an office building in Westminster and was being run by a group of patients claiming to have co-op status; it was supposedly headed by a dispensary owner from another town. Neither operation was deemed legal when investigators took a closer look into state paperwork. The majority of the rest of the operations were in single-family homes, and judging by the plant numbers, they were either flaunting the system or had significantly increased plant counts for themselves or their patients. Further, many of the grows were in communities like Longmont, Larimer County and Aurora, which have banned commercial medical marijuana businesses and commercial cultivation.

Despite a lack of licensing, local approval, code enforcement or any of the other things that communities require of legal medical grows in the two "commercial" sites in the study, Gerhard still believes the mold findings would be applicable across the board. "We think that those operations that were not in the residential areas would be very, very similar to any medical marijuana licensed grow operation in a commercial facility," he said.

Considering that the propaganda report didn't include a sample from a single legal commercial grow site, this might be hard to predict from the data.

Continue reading for more about the grow study. Aside from the major threat of mold, the study showed a relatively low risk for officers as far as contamination by pesticides and fertilizers, and Martyny made several references to how Colorado growers must be more conscious of health risks associated with chemical fertilizers. But he did note that analysts found chemicals labeled "NOT FOR RESIDENTIAL USE" in several of the residential grows.

The people behind the study even went so far as to test the THC "contamination" levels around the house -- a move they repeatedly equated to meth-house cleanup. Somebody must have completely missed other studies showing it's damn near impossible to get a second-hand high from merely touching a surface with THC on it, or that to reach the hypothetical toxicity point of marijuana, you'd have to eat several times your body weight in hash. So, really, without any danger from the cannabis itself, the study was essentially a condemnation of medium- to large-scale indoor gardening as a whole.

When pressed, Martyny himself said the environmental concerns such as mold, mildew and contact with fertilizers would be the same for any plants being grown indoors, such as indoor tomato and pepper gardening, and not just for cannabis.

"This actually isn't about marijuana, but the way it is grown. Is it possible to have a greenhouse and not have problems? And the answer to that is no," he said. "The conditions that you need to grow that many plants -- and I'm not talking about someone who has potted plants -- I'm talking about the systems we saw with 100 plants-plus, in some cases in a bedroom. There is no way you are going to be able to do that and keep the plants happy and people happy at the same time."

But despite that, at least four speakers likened marijuana grow houses to meth labs. Now, beyond the obvious difference -- like, for example, the fact that grow operations don't spontaneously explode -- the doctor himself said that up to an hour and a half of exposure in a heavily mold-contaminated grow house would require only a disposable paper respirator. Investigators in meth labs go in wearing full Hazmat suits.

Not to say that a bacterial or fungal infection of the lungs is pretty...but the reality is that the most common negative reaction would be hay fever for a few boys and girls in blue. No police officer is going to be getting a contact high from ripping out plants, though. And by their argument, anyone who works in a plant nursery, at a commercial food-producing greenhouse or even at the Denver Botanic Gardens is in serious danger.

Alongside several comparisons to meth houses throughout the hour-long report, numerous speakers, including Denver DEA chief Barbara Roach, said they think grow houses pose a major threat to children. "It's not just law enforcement officers that face these dangers," she said. "Adults who grow marijuana are placing themselves at serious risk. They are endangering their health, as well as the health of the children that are in those homes. The children have no say or no control over the choices made by these adults. These children are innocent."

Martyny went so far as to say he would be happy to testify for the district attorney as to how grow-house conditions like the putrid examples used for their study could be considered child endangerment if kids are present. (Not to beat a dead horse here, but wouldn't the same theory be applied to legal indoor tomato or pepper gardens?)

Finally, though the speakers didn't explicitly tie the timing of the findings directly to the Amendment 64 campaign to legalize small-scale residential cannabis cultivation for personal use, Stan Hilkey, Mesa County Sheriff and president of the County Sheriffs of Colorado association, made a not-so-subtle direct connection:

"I'm having a very big déjà vu moment: We've been through this before with meth labs a decade ago," he said. "In this case, though, we are talking about situations where this is going to be -- especially if Amendment 64 passes -- a constitutional right for people to do. So this is a public-policy nightmare with respect to -- we have the ability now to understand what those hazards are for us as deputies, but what about the kids? What about homeowners? Imagine when you are buying a house: Are you owed a disclosure that that house was a marijuana grow site before you buy it? I think you do. We went through this with methamphetamine labs."

Here's the complete report:

Health Effects Associated With Indoor Marijuana Grow Operations

More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana report proves Colorado MMJ being illegally diverted, advocate says."

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