By LARRY LECHUGA
Food products in the U.S. are regulated by the U.S.D.A., alcohol and tobacco by the B.A.T.F., pharmaceuticals by the F.D.A. It’s an alphabet soup of agencies looking over the shoulder of farmers, laboratories and manufacturers to ensure the safety of consumers.
Added to the list are many state and local health departments, liquor control boards and trade groups that establish their own standards for what can be sold and what must be disclosed. As a result, consumers have a vast amount of information–some say too much–about the products they buy and consume.
But, medical marijuana doesn’t come with bar codes, standardized ingredient lists or warning labels. The “just say no” mentality promoted by U.S. drug policy has left patients largely in the dark about the safety and potency of their medicine.
Recently, though, the industry itself has taken the lead in self-regulating the supply. Oakland-based Steep Hill Lab is one of a growing number of businesses specializing in testing cannabis for strength and purity. President and Co-founder, David Lampach, sees varying reactions from the industry when it comes to instituting product testing. “You’ve got different types of dispensary owners–and now growers are becoming more and more eager because they want to differentiate themselves,” he says. “There are idealist dispensary owners who came from the movement early on. Those people are generally very keen on testing. On the opposite end of those guys, you’ve got people who are exclusively in it for the money, couldn’t care less and are not interested in testing at all. Then there are people in the middle who kinda want to do the right thing, but aren’t gungho about testing–even though they’d probably be happy to go that way.”
Michael Backes, Board Member of Cornerstone Research Collective, in Eagle Rock, does regular testing with Steep Hill, L.A.-based lab The Werc Shop and hopes to set up their own lab in the future. He says close-sourcing of their cannabis supply from among their membership alleviates some of their concerns about the safety of what they sell. “Primarily, we test when we’ve got something interesting to test or an interesting testing methodology, not out of some compulsion to see the same results over and over again,” he says. He is critical of U.S. and international drug regulations that inhibit accurate test results: “Frankly, testing in California is in its infancy, primarily because cannabinoid standards for calibrating the lab gear are difficult to acquire.”
With local officials taking the lead in regulating medical marijuana dispensaries within their boundaries, some are requiring regular monitoring of the supply, particularly to detect mold and pesticides. Cities like Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland have mandated standards for testing. Lampach says there are no universally-accepted guidelines for safety, although the World Health Organization, European Pharmacopeia and American Organic Products Association all have their own standards.
“When you do the mold, bacterial and pesticide tests, it’s a screening process,” he says. “For the most part, if the spores are present, there’s a higher risk of the whole sample being contaminated to some extent. And our philosophy is that it’s probably safer to reject things that might be contaminated than to let things slip through.”
Still, the lab only reports the results. “We don’t tell the dispensaries what to do,” the Steep Hill manager says. “They determine whether they want to reject something or not.” Individuals with compromised immune systems are at greatest risk for complications from marijuana contaminated with mold. This is a great concern for patients those patients who use the medication to treat the symptoms of cancer or HIV. The American College of Chest Physicians has linked the death of a bone marrow transplant patient to a lung infection that can be caused by exposure to Aspergillus fungus present in contaminated cannabis. Lampach calls molds “ubiquitous” in the marijuana supply. “It’s all a matter of which molds and what levels, “ he says. Pesticides, he says, are found most regularly on plants grown indoors. Indoor growing operations often use chemicals to prevent infestations of pests, such as mites, which are limited natural predators in outdoor growing.
According to Backes, “cannabis contamination with pesticides remains quite uncommon.” He calls cannabis, “a hearty plant that doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides, if properly cultivated.” But, he favors the establishment of pesticide exposure limits. “We do need a an EPA Pesticide Tolerance Limit schedule for cannabis, just as we have it for every other crop raised in the U.S.,” he says.
The Farmacy, with locations in Westwood, Venice and West Hollywood, has conducted testing through co-owned Herbal Research Lab for the past five years. Registered Pharmacist and Clinical Director, JoAnna LaForce, says their growers are often visited to ensure they are practicing organic growing techniques. But, “I’m not that sold on pesticide testing,” she says. “In the hundreds of samples we have tested we have not detected any residual pesticide content.” Still, LaForce thinks greater openness about cannabis use and cultivation will make it easier to establish and regulate cultivation standards, such as organic certification requirements.
Although the quasi-legal nature of cannabis growing has prevented the establishment of government guidelines on pesticide levels in marijuana, labs like Steep Hill turn to standards for related crops, like hops, in determining what to look for in test results. When a problem is found, they can also help dispensaries sleuth out the source of the contamination. “Just from doing a test, you can’t tell where it came from,” Lampach explains. “We can go back to a dispensary and sample their surfaces and air ducts. Sample air outside and inside to see if there’s a difference. And if that’s clean, you can go as far back as the cure space.” The investigation may also focus on the dispensary’s weigh room or packaging materials. “There are numerous places where contamination can come from.”
“These mold infestations can be eliminated by proper curing, since these molds thrive in moist warm conditions,” says Backes. “Never ‘sweat cure’ cannabis in brown paper, store moist cannabis in plastic bags, or store cannabis in cardboard.” As medical marijuana patients and practitioners know, determining proper dosing and maintaining consistent levels over time can be difficult to achieve due to the varying cannabinoid levels from one strain to another–and sometimes between one plant and another sharing the same label. But, having a better understanding of the chemical signature that makes each plant unique can assist patients and their caregivers in achieving a better quality of life.
“People self-titrate at this point,” Lampach says. “Patients know what they want. If they try something really strong and see that it’s 18 percent THC…maybe they’re going to go for something that’s 10 percent THC because they don’t want to derail their whole day. But, the issue of potency is “very subjective.”
“Some people are not affected at all by very high THC levels,” he says. “But THC is not the only factor that determines the potency of a strain. What you get in to are the other compounds in the plant.
You can have two strains with the same apparent potency on the THC scale that affect someone very differently.” On this, Backes concurs: “Potency standards can be a bit misleading, since they promote the widely held misconception that higher-THC cannabis is always more desirable. There is much more to cannabis than its THC-derived psychoactivity. Try a high CBD extract and you’ll understand my point.”
Steep Hill currently tests for the cannabinoids CBD, CBN and THC. “We also have the capability- -although we don’t do it very often because it’s not in demand–to do terpinoid analysis,” Lampach explains. “[Terpinoids] are the other compounds which give the plant its characteristics. When you’re holding a plant and it’s got a certain smell and a certain flavor, that’s generally because of the terpinoids, not the cannabinoids. But the terpinoids interact with cannabinoid receptors.”
And how can a patient know whether their new dispensary’s Big Bud is actually the strain you’re used to? “That’s a big question;” says Lampach. “We don’t confirm the accuracy of a strain name. There’s no established basis for any of that right now. It, ultimately, will probably require genetic analysis.”
With the potential for passage of California’s Proposition 19 legalizing recreational marijuana use, the issue of potency is likely to become increasingly important, as regulators attempt to establish standards for intoxication. Individual users, for their part, need this information to monitor their own responsible use of pot.
The procedure for monitoring cannabis purity and potency is relatively simple. Labs contract with dispensaries to sample about a gram of cannabis for every pound that is purchased. “There is not a lot of variation within a specific strain grown a specific way from a specific farm and specific cut. You’re going to see pretty much the same THC results, and other cannabinoids,” Lampach says. But, because dispensaries purchase marijuana in relatively small amounts, Steep Hill sees larger-scale testing by growers as more practical.
“There is an extraordinary amount of competition [among dispensaries] at this point. In L.A. it’s unbelievable the amount of competition–and it’s difficult. The price of testing doesn’t really go down. The price of cannabis goes down. So, because of the way the industry is structured right now, where dispensaries buy one pound and there’s a completely decentralized production process, it puts a lot of
pressure on the dispensaries.”
A former grower, Lampach watched the cannabis industry go through severe downward price cycles
in the last decade caused by political and legal developments. In addition, each year’s crop harvest meant lower prices in fall and winter. “I didn’t want to be dealing with a product that was experiencing such a rapid downward price movement.” But, currently working with about 50 dispensaries in California, Steep Hill is not immune from increasing competition. “Everybody’s setting up a testing lab at this point,” he jokes.
Asked what impact Proposition 19 may have on cannabis testing and regulation, Lampach isn’t sure. “One would imagine that the further you get down the road toward legalization, the more regulation you’re going to see. Presumably that would mean more testing. Whether Prop 19 is going to spawn that, I don’t know.”
LaForce sees the potential for legalization to encourage more “certification” businesses, drawn to the promise of a fast buck. “We must provide standards and regulations to avoid the ‘fly-by-night’ operators who are in it for the money only,” she says. “These testing facilities must be run by scientists and professionals to guarantee accuracy, credibility and legitimacy.”
Whether it’s concerns over molds and pesticides, or the growing issue of cannabis potency, medical marijuana patients now have access to more information about their medicine than ever before. But, in the absence of government standards, may of these answers are coming from the industry itself, a development Lampach calls a self-regulation “success story” As he tells it, pursuing cannabis testing has allowed him to, “stay in the industry, make a living–and make a difference.”