Weed science

Experts urge independent auditing and oversight of medical-cannabis-testing labs

Medical-cannabis testing at labs is a new industry without much oversight. Pot activists and scientists are pushing for independent auditing.

Medical-cannabis testing at labs is a new industry without much oversight. Pot activists and scientists are pushing for independent auditing.

Learn more about the Alliance for Cannabis Science at www.allianceforcannabisscience.org.

California’s three-year dalliance with medical-cannabis laboratories hit a new milestone last month as the public began calling for a better system for testing prescription pot. And so, a new organization of scientists formed to accomplish said goal.

But a gold-rush mentality in the medical-pot-testing sector is still attracting potentially dangerous amateur lab techs, who’re driving down quality control and undermining medical cannabis’ legitimacy and efficacy.

Respected cannabis-testing laboratories, such as Steep Hill in Oakland, have long argued that if pot is medicine, it should be tested like medicine. Now, though, mainstream scientists are in turn calling out pot labs, arguing that if the labs are in fact real labs, they should be audited like real labs.

Dutch phytochemist Arno Hazekamp, head of research and development for the Netherlands’ sole government-sanctioned plant cannabis producer, Bedrocan, announced last month that he, along with Michael Geci-Black and Eric Taylor, head of the small San Francisco cannabis lab Botanical Analytics, had formed the nonprofit Alliance for Cannabis Science. The alliance intends to offer private auditing services to cannabis labs. Labs that can validate their methods would become alliance certified.

Cities and states are increasingly calling for stricter medical-pot testing, but there’s currently no accrediting method for pot labs.

“There seems to be new labs popping up everyday,” observed Sonny Kumar, owner of El Camino Wellness Center, whose medical cannabis is lab-tested for mold, pathogens and potency levels. “There should be some type of accreditation for the labs. Just like any industry, there can be good apples and bad apples.”

Kumar notes that lab testing doesn’t just ensure medicine is safe for patients, but that it also can standardize patient’s strain selections. “For instance, many high-THC strains can cause anxiety in people with anxiety symptoms,” he explained. “It’s probably not a good idea for patients suffering from anxiety to ingest such medicine.

“It’s all about the safety for the patients.”

One problem with standardizing labs is that the Drug Enforcement Administration only permits a handful of marijuana researchers in the country, and two medical cannabis labs who applied for a DEA permit in Colorado were raided in 2010.

Since the advent of quantifiable pot potency, marijuana strains with the highest amount of THC, expressed as a percentage of dried plant matter, often become the best sellers at dispensaries. As a result, there’s pressure for labs to post higher THC potency results; some say club owners shop around various labs until they get desired THC percentages. THC content can vary from zero to about 25 percent. “I have seen numbers up to 38 percent,” said Hazekamp. “My reaction is: ‘That’s wrong.’”

The market impetus to attach higher potency numbers to products can also result in shoddy labs getting more work, but the murkiness of the field creates a liability for good labs as well.

Meanwhile, fly-by-night chemists are setting up labs in garages for as little as the cost of leasing a $12,000 used gas chromatograph and buying a manual and some chemicals. That can be dangerous, because gas chromatographs run on compressed helium, and THC potency methods often require a solvent like toxic hexane. Experts say that compressed helium tanks, if they fall over due to accident or earthquake, can cause serious damage: A regulator could break off and rocket through the walls, breaking ankles, legs.

Exposure to the common pot-lab solvent hexane can cause developmental anomalies in humans as well. Screening for pathogens—which labs often advertise—requires deliberately culturing potentially deadly bacteria like E. coli.

One serious accident is all it would take for the whole weed-lab industry to suffer a major setback. It could undermine the position that weed is medicine at all, Hazekamp argues.