Cannabis labs play an increasing role in public safety

Kymron De Cesare and Donald Lamb of Berkeley’s Steep Hill Laboratories.

Kymron De Cesare and Donald Lamb of Berkeley’s Steep Hill Laboratories.

Cannabis testing will get a lot more serious starting in July, and it’s for our own good.

After California legalized recreational use, the state’s emergency regulations required dispensaries to sell off any untested cannabis products by June 30. Beginning July 1, dispensaries may only sell lab-tested cannabis. Suppliers who haven’t done so yet will be desperately seeking a relationship with any laboratory that can keep them in compliance.

Berkeley’s Steep Hill Laboratories was the first such lab in the country and remains the most respected. When they opened their doors in 2008, co-founders Addison De Moura, David Lampach and Harborside’s Steve DeAngelo wanted to do more than test for THC and CBD potency. They took equipment originally designed for testing produce, and reconfigured it to test for mycotoxins, the byproducts of mold which cause acute and chronic health problems.

Five years ago, West Sacramento’s Halent lab merged with Steep Hill, bringing along the expertise of UC Davis Chemistry and Forensic Science professor Dr. Donald Land. Land has been instrumental in expanding the lab’s capabilities.

Steep Hill now tests for 17 different cannabinoids, 43 terpenoids, molds, fungi and pesticides in three different plant stages: raw, heated and aged.

Someone who has enjoyed smoking pot for decades might ask “Why do I need testing, anyway?” Land answers, “If you’re ingesting mycotoxins and pesticides, the health effects may not be immediately noticeable. What we do know is that they are toxic and should be avoided.” Land distinguished the simpler “hippie” growers of yesteryear from today’s “for-profit” growers, who sometimes choose petrochemicals ahead of public health.

We asked about Eagle-20, a controversial fungicide also known as myclobutanil. It is considered a miracle product for desperate black-market growers who need to save an entire crop from mold infestation. Used commonly on table grapes, it can be harmlessly eaten in trace amounts. But when myclobutanil is lit and inhaled, it produces hydrogen cyanide, which makes cannabis smokers sick.

Asked if the lab has ever found myclobutanil while testing, Land answered, “Oh, all the time.” He pointed to a 2017 KNBC news story that commissioned Steep Hill to test 44 retail cannabis products, randomly purchased from Southern California dispensaries. Forty-one of the products, including flowers, concentrates and vape cartridges, tested positive for pesticides, and over half contained myclobutanil.

“That’s why regulation is a good thing,” said Kymron De Cesare, chief of research. “To give people the tools at hand for their own safety.”

Steep Hill has several clients in the Sacramento area, including dispensaries, manufacturers, and even Yolo County, which contracted to test its growers’ samples. When UC Davis Medical Center needed to test cannabis in a forensics case, the federal government wouldn’t allow it, so the hospital sent the job out to Steep Hill.

As part of his research, Land has identified 12 common “strain fingerprints” he designed to function as a serious guide for doctors. These renamed strain categories link together similar terpene profiles and healing properties. “No MD is going to say, ’Go out and buy yourself some Alaskan Thunder Fuck,’” said Land, about creating new category names. “We would like to call all of those [ATF strains] by one name, so an MD can look at a list.”

Land and Steep Hill also pioneered the popular GenKit, which helps growers swiftly identify male plants, and the QuantaCann, a portable testing machine that analyzes ground-up cannabis samples using beams of light. When hooked up to a computer and calibrated correctly, it can instantly measure potency to within 1 percent accuracy of larger, more complicated machines. Now in its second generation, the QuantaCann2 is too expensive for mass production, but Land predicted hardware like this will probably be a regular part of our future.

Regarding the possibilities of testing: “There are over 500 compounds identified in cannabis,” Land said. “People are discovering new compounds to this day. It has not been fully explored yet.”