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Dispensaries in battleground counties like Los Angeles and San Bernardino have been using the crackdown as an excuse for not testing. "They say, 'I want to grab the last of it that I can. I don't know how long I'll be here. I'm not going to make any strategic moves for the long-term,'" Raber said.
At the same time, labs need to meet higher standards, Raber said. They're totally unregulated. And some are fly-by-night operations. While potency is popular, safety screening is paramount. About 25 percent of samples sent to The Werc Shop are contaminated with some bacteria, mold, or fungus.
Yet even with the federal pressure, there have been breakthroughs. This summer and fall, Steep Hill is rolling out its new, rapid potency estimator known as QuantaCann.
When I visited the lab recently, David Lampach was grinding a couple grams of weed and loading it into a clear container the size of a hockey puck. The puck was then slotted onto a machine the size of a small printer that sits on a countertop.
In three minutes, the results popped up on the touchscreen, indicating the sample has 13.5 percent THC, plus or minus 1.5 percent sample error. This process used to take three days.
Since Steep Hill was the first cannabis lab, it was also the first to realize that testing takes too long, Lampach said. "The huge issue has always been the turnaround," he said. "Dispensaries can't wait five days for their product. Other dispensaries aren't Harborside. They buy it and it's out on the shelf in five minutes. We realized this was going to be a challenge with the industry at-large."
Lampach, ever the autodidact, looked into near-infrared sensing. Where feasible, near-infrared sensing is used in agriculture because it's fast and cheap. An infrared sensor can detect the telltale light wavelengths reflected by spider mite residue in a field of wheat from as far away as a plane flying overhead, and thereby estimate crop loss to the pests. Modern climate satellites use powerful infrared sensors to detect minute differences in the heat levels on the ground from several miles up in space.
Lampach reasoned that a near-infrared sensor could be trained to look closely at pot and see what wavelengths are absorbed and reflected. Steep Hill tried to correlate experimental infrared scan data with potency data from conventional methods, but failed at first. "We investigated it once and we thought it didn't work," Lampach said. "We realized months later we had made a mathematical error. So we went back and got a machine again and it worked."
The QuantaCann machine monitors 1,200 data points in the infrared band at the spectrum of 1,800 to 2,400 nanometers. After eighteen months of comparing regular lab data with additional infrared scanning, Steep Hill found the correlation. "It was pretty exciting," Lampach said. "You realize pretty quickly it's working."
Steep Hill built up an immense reference library for its QuantaCann, and now the calibrated machine can scan and identify levels of THC and CBD in any sample of pot, accurate to within 2 percent. "It's also super-accurate for CBD," Lampach said.
Steep Hill then designed and created a scanning hardware/software product for rent to dispensaries for $5,000 per month, which is still lower than a big dispensary's current testing costs. "I think Steep Hill has a big hit on their hands," said Harborside manager and herb buyer Rick Pfrommer. "It's super simple. I think QuantaCann's the next evolution. I think this is the biggest innovation to come along since the beginning of the lab."
Pfrommer also said he prefers a QuantaCann to traditional gas chromatograph testing. "We've used it extensively, not only in getting flowers at the end of use, but continually throughout the grow cycle to find the highest CBD level," he said. "There's problems with getting enough CBD-rich material. We're seeing a large amount of CBD present in the growing leaf.
"In the future, people may grow some plants just for the CBD-rich trim," he continued. "So it's already altering the product development cycle."
QuantaCann has also enabled Harborside to push outdoor-grown weed, which is less carbon-intensive and produces far fewer greenhouse gases. A QuantaCann scans all herb that comes into Harborside, and outdoor-grown weed that tests higher than 16-percent THC is earmarked for the shelves. Some people think outdoor isn't as strong as indoor. But 16-percent THC is plenty strong for most, whether it's grown indoors or outdoors. QuantaCann has helped triple the sales of sungrown weed this year, Andrew DeAngelo said, going from 5 percent of flowers sold to 15 percent. Sungrown weed is generally cheaper, and some say its effects are more wholesome than indoor, like the difference between an organic and nonorganic tomato.
But labs have a lot of work ahead of them. They need to find faster ways to test for pathogens, which still takes seven days, and they must develop new methods to screen for pesticides. There are hundreds of commercially available pesticides, and it currently costs a fortune to screen each batch of pot for all of them.
Up until the federal crackdown happened, Steep Hill and other labs had begun moving up the supply chain to test growers themselves, which is similar to what happens in the retail produce industry. Whole Foods, for example, doesn't test its organic apples for pesticides. Instead, organic farms must meet standards during inspection. But cannabis grower- and farm-certification programs driven by labs have been stymied by federal interference. It's slow going in 2012.