Chemists and businessmen who lead the nation’s emerging marijuana lab testing industry grew up in an era where such analysis often featured a cup of urine handed to a probation officer.
Now, their livelihood is a key auxiliary industry supporting state-legal cannabis markets across the country, and like the larger marijuana markets themselves, responsible players in the field say there are some problems to weed out.
These testing industry leaders say momentum is building toward tightened standards and refined best practices, and that a truly professional, reliable testing environment is on the horizon.
But as things stand, market forces, complicated machinery, lax rules and limited know-how have contributed to a turbulent and at times dishonest and unprofessional marketplace—and states that do regulate labs don’t yet require them to produce accurate results.
Jeffrey Raber, who holds an organic chemistry doctorate and is president of testing lab The Werc Shop, says a customer walked in to the Washington lab with the following instructions: “Here’s my sample, and I don’t want a [THC] number that’s under 20 percent.”
The Werc Shop also has a lab in California, where producers aren’t yet required to test products, limiting business until mandatory testing required by just-passed legislation kicks in.
Colorado-based Aurum Labs’ co-owner, Luke Mason, also a chemist, says when he opened shop customers offered money for falsified sample results.
Lab Director Heather Despres, of CannLabs, also in Colorado, says she recently received a call from someone who had come across a YouTube video about testing. They decided they, too, would like to set up a lab.
These rebuffed bids to corrupt or compromise the system represent only minor challenges confronting an evolving industry with dozens of labs scattered throughout states that allow medical or recreational use of cannabis.
In Colorado, 10 labs are currently licensed to perform at least one type of testing. In Washington, 14 are approved. In California, as many as two dozen commercial labs are believed to test products (though in California, producers aren’t required to do testing). A handful exist in Massachusetts, Nevada and Oregon, and more are being established in other states.
The Lab-Testing Process
Well-regarded labs generally perform potency testing with high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) or ultra-performance liquid chromatography (UPLC). Before the past decade’s sea change in state laws, such tests were often done with less expensive gas chromatography, which detractors say can result in a less precise accounting of certain cannabinoids.
More expensive UPLC machines produce results more quickly than HPLC equipment because they use higher pressure, cutting wait times to 15 minutes or less, depending on the desired precision of results. A longer run time increases the resolution of charted results.
Other techniques, including gas chromatography, are used to perform tests for residual solvents, microbes, heavy metals and compounds known as terpenes.
Commercial potency tests can detect and quantify the presence of between eight and 10 cannabinoids, including the high-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and increasingly popular (for medical uses) cannabidiol (CBD). Cannabigerol (CBG), cannabinol (CBN), tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) are among the others commonly analyzed.
Labs perform cannabinoid profile tests using samples of known potency, called standards, against which they compare the product they are testing. The standards generally are acquired from a large manufacturer, which limits the number that can be quantified. Some chemists are capable of painstakingly creating their own standards in-house, but this requires specialized training. Isolating cannabinoids for which there are no commercial standards takes even longer.
Jeannine Machon, business director of CMT Laboratories, tells a story common among lab founders. She stumbled into the industry. Originally hawking generalized lab equipment, Machon recognized a gaping market opportunity after fielding many requests for pot-testing equipment.
Machon’s Colorado-based company now has eight employees, and she’s become an advocate of industry self-improvement. Earlier this year she helped write a bill signed into law that will establish a state reference library for labs and require the state government to convene a stakeholder process to consider proficiency testing that would ensure that labs produce results within an acceptable range. Labs consider slight variations in results—a few percentage points—to be acceptable, and say educating customers of this is key to building confidence.
“You’ve got a lot of labs that have really good scientists, but they are coming out of dairy testing or biology, people who were doing testing on crops,” she says. “You’re dealing with completely different skill sets, but it’s just a new emerging science, and we’ll get there.”
jeannine Machon helped write a bill signed into law that establishes a state reference library for labs and requires a stakeholder process to consider proficiency testing of labs.
Edibles, Oils and Raw Buds
Among the challenges for potency testing is getting accurate results from edible products, with each type of edible requiring different treatment. A piece of infused beef jerky requires different preparation than a salsa.
Washington’s more cautious approach to edibles reflected concern about accurate testing. “The state only allows low-risk, relatively stable foods,” explains Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesman for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. “Washington chose to be cautious. We don’t have infused turkey dinners and stuff like that.”
Samples supplied by clients present a different complication. A cookie off the front of a production line may have a different composition than one at its back, regardless of efforts to homogenize a batter. Potency results for raw marijuana, too, can vary depending on the precise location from which a cannabis flower sample is taken.
Despres says her lab even has found “hot pockets” within concentrates, which often are assumed to be homogeneous.
Despite testing challenges, lab leaders say producers can better refine their production methods using testing.
MagicalButter.com CEO Garyn Angel, a cannabis entrepreneur whose commercially available botanical extractors allow people to make their own confectionery delights, meals and even lotions, says lab testing has had practical use for him. Angel says his company tested a recipe for spaghetti to make sure it had the dosing right, and it performs tests on all of its skin care recipes. He says he’s used labs in California, Colorado and Washington, and “over the last few years, it has gotten exponentially better and more consistent.”
Some growers, such as Anthony Franciosi, a cannabis grower in Colorado and founder of Honest Marijuana Company, use mandatory state testing, but also hope to set up in-house lab testing to look at plants’ sex and genetic traits. In-house testing of marijuana samples currently is done at the University of California by researchers who must acquire the plant from the only federally legal grow site in the country at the University of Mississippi.
No Shipping for Samples
Under current federal law, almost all state-legal possession of marijuana is a crime. The Obama administration allows significant leeway to states wishing to regulate medical or recreational marijuana sales, but it remains illegal to use the mail system to ship cannabis, complicating the lab-testing industry.
In Colorado, a robust system of couriers ferries samples from producer to laboratory in the Denver area, but elsewhere, such as in California, where transportation is limited to legal medical system participants, labs are more likely to do the legwork themselves.
Raber says certain inconveniences he faces are blessings in disguise. The ban on shipping samples results in more scientific sampling, he says, as he or his staff must take representative samples themselves, rather than work with what they are provided. He’s also forced to be a testing evangelist—with mixed success—pitching the practical benefits of testing to cost-conscious growers and manufacturers for whom consistent testing seems unnecessary.
Raber says his lab has provided actionable results for clients seeking to develop particular strains. Testing informed one client he needed to clean his moldy air conditioning system, he says, and has helped others know if they should uproot undesirable breeding plants.
All growers want to know if they have unusual cannabinoid profiles, he adds.
Labs to me are the most responsible part of the whole industry; they have to be of the utmost moral character. —Jeffrey Raber, president, The Werc Shop
An Open and Highly Unregulated Market
Raber’s jump into pot testing was inspired when his brother took a construction job building a dispensary nearly a decade ago.
“I saw a very nascent industry and a lot of compassionate people, but a lot of potential harms and risks,” he says. “What I quickly learned was a lot of people were accessing the system in California, but patients could not be sure of consistency.”
After nearly two decades without regulations that require product testing, California’s legislature passed and Gov. Jerry Brown in October signed into law testing requirements that will move the state’s medical marijuana market toward standards implemented in other states.
Like other lab leaders, Raber believes the government’s imprimatur on results can boost public confidence in the market, though he says rules should evolve past paper-pushing requirements to ensure accurate results.
Raber says that historically there has not been a significant difference in workload between Werc Shop’s California and Washington labs, which each employs roughly five to seven people. In Washington, where lab testing of products is required, he’s found stiff competition, including from a lab that reported off-the-charts potency of about 40-percent THC in raw cannabis.
That lab, Anatek Labs in the eastern part of the state, defended its testing in the media. “We’re not doing anything we’re not supposed to do,” Anatek lab manager Kathy Sattler told one publication, hypothesizing the samples had been ground too finely during test preparation. Sattler denied a financial motive on behalf of the lab. (Anatek did not respond to CBT’s request for comment.)
Still, Raber says customers have flocked to that lab looking for a high reading. “Some labs are way off in their calibration, and they’re purposefully doing that,” he says. “Labs to me are the most responsible part of the whole industry; they have to be of the utmost moral character.”
Pressure on labs to keep customers happy or risk going out of business, as some already have in California and Colorado, is a potentially corrupting force for the industry.
Ring Tests and Evolving Rules
CMT Laboratories, CannLabs, Aurum and other labs in Colorado are competitors, but have a collegial relationship and hope to mainstream best practices. Many labs participated in internal proficiency testing, called ring tests, conducted by California’s Emerald Scientific, and the Colorado labs have convened their own work groups.
Machon, who is not a trained scientist, and other lab leaders say significant players in the industry already have begun to conduct proficiency tests amongst themselves. Differing results in these ring tests helped labs more accurately calibrate machines, she says.
In lieu of government strictures, early efforts by interested parties have been made to ensure accuracy. The medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access launched its own Patient Focused Certification program in 2013, seeking to move the industry toward greater product reliability. The Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories, which has 15 member labs, requires internal ring testing.
Mason says one major frustration he has is Colorado’s requirement that licensed testing labs only accept samples from authorized grow or manufacturing facilities. That keeps him from testing products for people who—for their own medical, recreational or horticultural reasons—want a sample tested.
“Marijuana enforcement in Colorado says you can’t test hemp or marijuana grown in backyards,” Mason says. “But we’re playing by the rules, and I don’t think other labs are.” He says he’s heard some labs may have a parallel business for such samples. “We’re playing by the rules, and we’re turning away businesses for it.”
A looming headache for labs is regulation for pesticide use. Negative results can doom a grower, and the safe levels of inhaled pesticides doesn’t correspond neatly with safe levels when different compounds are ingested. Raber points out the word “pesticide” could cover thousands of chemicals, and says it’s important to figure out which are of greatest concern.
As rules evolve, mandatory over-testing may also be a problem. Raber says he accidentally oversold the value of terpene testing to Nevada lawmakers—and it then became mandatory.
The Testing Frontier
Despite uncertainty and challenges ahead, the frontier of cannabis testing excites lab operators.
Despres, who was first hired by a pot-testing lab after being overheard saying it was her dream position, says testing may prove useful for breeding strains of cannabis rich in niche cannabinoids.
Only a few years ago, she notes, most people only cared about high THC content. When medical miracles were increasingly attributed to CBD, which parents of severely epileptic children say has shown great results, that cannabinoid became popular among the general public and with growers responding to market demand.
Despres says several cannabinoids appear to have medical uses and may become the next craze.
“CBN is a great sleep inducer, so maybe CBN becomes the next Ambien,” she says. CBN also may help with post-traumatic stress disorder. “Maybe THCV becomes the next appetite suppressant.”
CBG is an anti-inflammatory, and THCV, Machon notes, also may be used to treat diabetes. THCA may be used for various treatments.
But the future of the industry is uncertain to all who lack a magic ball, and there’s significant uncertainty about what will happen if the anticipated end of federal prohibition arrives.
“In 10 years it could all be Pfizer doing what we do,” Machon says. “In five years I can’t see that, but in 10 years I don’t know that’s out of the question.”
In Colorado, market forces already are dragging down test prices as new players enter the market.
Raber says “if we’re all lucky it will be a highly diverse” lab-testing market that’s more sophisticated, too. “Valid and accurate should definitely be where we all are in five years. God, I hope so by then!” he says. “I’ve been here about five years now, and I thought it would have moved faster.”
Even with mandatory proficiency tests, “there are plenty of ways a lab can fudge the numbers” to keep customers happy, Mason cautions. The long-term solution, he says, is for growers and customers to stop obsessing about THC levels and appreciate cannabis like a fine wine.
“Not everyone drinks Everclear,” he says. “Most sophisticated consumers already are aware of that.”
Steven Nelson covers legal affairs and drug policy for U.S. News & World Report. He lives in Washington, D.C., where a green thumb would be useful.