Cal Poly Humboldt to Study Emerald Triangle Cannabis Genetics, Cultivators

The community-based participatory research project will attempt to preserve the history and diversity of California's rural legacy marijuana genetics and the communities that steward them.
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Updated on May 16, 2023
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  • California's Department of Cannabis Control awarded $20 million in grants across 16 academic institutions focused on the study of marijuana.
  • California Polytechnic University, Humboldt received the largest grant for a first-of-its-kind study on the state's legacy cannabis genetics.
  • The research project will span two years and involve multiple community partners across the state.

As California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt (Cal Poly Humboldt) launches one of the nation's first bachelor's degree programs in cannabis studies, it will also embark on a groundbreaking study into the legacy of cannabis cultivation and culture in its surrounding communities.

Since the late 1960s, Northern California's "Emerald Triangle" — a region encompassing Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties — has produced copious amounts of cannabis for illicit and legal markets.

Now, a $2.7 million grant from California's Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) will fund Cal Poly Humboldt's "Legacy Cannabis Genetics: People and Their Plants, a Community-Driven Study." The two-year community-based participatory research project will attempt to "identify, document, and help to preserve the history, value, and diversity of California's rural legacy cannabis genetics and the communities that steward them."

The grant is part of a $20 million round of funding provided by California's Department of Cannabis Control to 16 state universities for scientific research on a host of cannabis-related issues. The recipients were chosen from among 98 proposals based on their strong methodology, potential policy influence, advancing public knowledge and ability to develop foundational research, according to DCC officials.

Cal Poly Humboldt researchers told BestColleges that the grant was going to the right institution — not only because of its location amid the Emerald Triangle cultivators but also because of its new cannabis studies program.

"So much of the actual scope of this research is going to be done here because Humboldt is the capital of [small and medium-sized licensed cannabis cultivation] in California," said Dominic Corva, Ph.D., director of Cal Poly Humboldt's cannabis studies program.

Though it is California's newest polytechnic university, Corva said the former Humboldt State University has roots in the regional cannabis community that "overgrew the government," referring to the Emerald Triangle's history of cannabis cultivation not only for profit but also as a form of protest against prohibitionist laws many viewed as unjust.

Corva also emphasized that the cannabis studies program's ethnobotanical focus will be important for researchers and students embarking on the study.

"[Cal Poly Humboldt's cannabis studies] program recognizes that there are communities that have a positive social [relationship] with the plant, and we want to lift those people up and learn from the mistakes of the past in a way that isn't about repeating prohibition," he said.

Restrictions on Studying Cannabis Persist

While students in the cannabis studies program will be involved in the research project, Corva says they won't be allowed to "touch" any cannabis plants.

California voters in 2016 approved Proposition 64 legalizing adult-use cannabis and commercial sales, but it remains federally illegal, and students no matter their age and researchers aren't allowed to participate in "plant-touching" studies.

So-called "plant-touching" operations in the cannabis industry include farming, manufacturing, laboratory testing, product distribution, and retail sales. Plant touching is also forbidden in state-funded cannabis research — only projects connected to federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) research licenses are allowed to interact with cannabis in this way.

"The students cannot touch the plants … they're dealing with the people, the people of the plant, that's what's legal."

However, studying cannabis DNA is not illegal, Corva said, so researchers can study the genetics as long as they don't extract or touch parts of the cannabis plant believed to contribute to its psychoactive effects: cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

"We're getting the part of the plant that [has] no cannabinoids, but has the DNA … Technically speaking, this isn't plant-touching, even though it's DNA touching."

Involvement of Cannabis Community Key

Corva will be the principal investigator (PI) on the research team leading the project.

He will be joined by co-PIs Genine Coleman, executive director of the nonprofit Origins Council; Dr. Rachel Giraudo, California State University, Northridge anthropology professor; Todd Holmes, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley's Oral History Center; and Dr. Eleanor Kuntz, CEO of the plant genomics company LeafWorks.

Researchers are also partnering with the Cannabis Equity Policy Council for the project.

Corva emphasized that most of the research will be conducted under a community-based participatory research (CBPR) methodology, which involves researchers, organizations, and community members in the process.

"CBPR involves the communities that are being researched in the research project itself," he explained. "Representing communities without their permission is not going to work. They need to be centrally involved. That is a huge part of this."

Corva explained that the CBPR methodology was specifically chosen to be culturally sensitive — not just to meet the parameters set by the Department of Cannabis Control but also to open doors for other legacy cannabis-producing communities across the world to be able to study their own history.

"CBPR was the culturally sensitive part that you can see in what they were asking for, with good reason. You can't just have people defining who is a legacy community without those communities participating," he said.

Cal Poly Humboldt researchers and students have a massive responsibility to the Californians they will be studying, Corva said.

"We're going to be showing the rest of the world how to develop a methodology to allow these communities to own the knowledge, and I believe it can be reproducible," he said.