Watching the Weed Watchmen 

As the marijuana testing industry grows, the Alliance for Cannabis Science, a new nonprofit, plans to offer private auditing of pot labs.

Californians' three-year dalliance with medical marijuana laboratories hit a new milestone this month, as the public has begun calling for a better testing system, and a new organization has been formed to create one. Marijuana testing labs like Steep Hill Laboratory in Oakland have long argued that if pot is medicine, it should be tested like medicine. Now, mainstream scientists are, in turn, calling out pot labs, arguing that if the labs are real labs, they should be audited like real labs. Instead, a gold rush mentality in the sector is attracting potentially dangerous amateurs, driving down quality control and undermining medical cannabis.

Dutch phytochemist Arno Hazekamp, head of research and development for the Netherlands' sole government-sanctioned plant cannabis producer, Bedrocan, announced this 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 — first announced in the trade newsletter Marijuana Business Report (which, full disclosure, this reporter co-edits) — 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 medical weed testing, but there's currently no accrediting method for pot labs. "I think it's a great idea," said Jeffrey Raber, head of the successful medical weed lab The Werc Shop, which serves Los Angeles and is interested in joining the alliance. "And Arno should be the guy leading the charge."

Raber has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Southern California, but an alliance seal of approval better positions The Werc Shop to test Los Angeles' medical cannabis, which by city ordinance must be screened for pesticides. Long Beach has mandated the same thing, and the entire state of Arizona is considering it.

Medical cannabis labs must be "independent" and "certified," the Los Angeles ordinance states — requirements that actually make little sense. 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.

It's this chilling environment that makes weed labs so secretive. In the real lab world, Taylor and Hazekamp said a client will mandate the right to audit a lab, and a lab that can't pass the audit loses prestige and can go out of business.

By contrast, weed labs in the United States typically resist scrutiny, claiming "trade secrets." This closed-door attitude, however, can lead to uncertainty and unreliability. Some lab clients, for example, have received different test results for the same marijuana, but cannot get answers as to why, Hazekamp said.

Raber said informal, club-driven audits are popular. The club sends five samples of the same thing with different names and sees how the numbers come back. "I always say, we're constantly being tested by the clients," he said. "We have to be on our game."

But Hazekamp said clubs also shop around for labs that turn out the highest potency numbers. 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 bestsellers at dispensaries. As a result, there's pressure for labs to post higher THC potency results. THC content can vary from zero to about 25 percent. "I have seen numbers up to 38 percent," Hazekamp said. "My reaction is: 'That's wrong.'" 

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

Steep Hill co-founder Addison DeMoura started the lab with Dave Lampach in 2008. The amateur lab techs consulted Hazekamp, who had published a very well-known and public method for measuring the potency of pot. But the two had trouble calibrating the machines to get accurate results, Hazekamp said, because running a gas chromatograph and a high-performance liquid chromatograph — standard pot lab tools — takes years of technical training. Since then, Steep Hill has hired technicians with credentials to run their machines, and scientists to create and validate their methodology.

DeMoura said Steep Hill has been rumored to be pumping up Harborside Health Center's numbers — a charge the lab adamantly denies. The lab is committed to peer review, intends to join the new alliance, and complies with Occupational Safety and Health Administration, US Environmental Protection Agency, and City of Oakland regulations for lab work, he said. Club audits aren't very scientific, and can tarnish a genuinely good lab, DeMoura said.

Meanwhile, fly-by-night chemists are setting up labs in their 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. "One of the first videos they show you in school is what happens when one of those compressed helium tanks falls over in a small earthquake," Raber said. "The regulator breaks off and it rockets through the walls, breaking ankles, legs, and everything else. It's a horrifying thing." 

Exposure to the common pot lab solvent hexane can cause developmental anomalies in humans. 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 said.

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