Clean weed? Labs test for contaminants, but that may not prevent tainted marijuana products
Marijuana can contain trace amounts of heavy metals, pesticides, yeast, mold and more. So stick that in your pipe when you smoke it.
But chemical testing is being rolled out in Oklahoma’s fledgling medical marijuana industry that should help consumers gain confidence their medicine won’t contain items with a technical term like “pathogenic microorganisms.”
Or perhaps someone doesn’t really use the products for the strictest of medical purposes, but still would like to know their supply isn’t contaminated with mycotoxins, which can damage organs and can be linked to cancer.
What about potency, and the flavor profiles of a product? Again, this information can help provide guidance for dose amounts for a patient, or help a connoisseur distinguish between strains.
The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority already issued licenses to a half dozen labs designed to test products for these kinds of items, with additional labs still in the process of receiving a license in order to operate.
“I’m quite encouraged by the interactions with the labs,” said Dr. Lee Rhoades, the laboratory program oversight manager for the OMMA. “I can say in every case I’ve been encouraged by the desire to do quality testing for the Oklahoma public.”
One of the first to open was PureLabs OKC in south Oklahoma City.
PureLabs’ lead scientist is Dr. Angelica Harper, who graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a doctorate in cell biology and a bachelor's degree in biochemistry.
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The lab is located in a nondescript space in a small office park, but inside it is filled with the kind of equipment designed to break down marijuana and search for a whole list of impurities at the smallest of levels.
For every 10 pounds of marijuana produced, growers are expected to submit 1% to a lab. The lab uses half that amount to test immediately, while storing the other half for 90 days in case a re-test is needed, Harper said.
Each batch undergoes a variety of treatments to break down the product and investigate for things that shouldn’t be in the marijuana. Initially it is examined at a microscopic level, then some is turned into a powder and tested for residual solvents including propane, butane and methanol.
Microbial testing is done for items such as E. Coli and salmonella. Cannabinoid profiles are tested, as are the presence of heavy metals and pesticides.
Some is turned into a gas and the terpene profiles are tested, which indicate the flavor profile of the product, and more.
If a batch of marijuana, or processed products with THC, is clean, it is given a certificate of analysis, according to Rhoades.
If it doesn’t pass? Well, that’s a bit of a gray area. An OMMA compliance officer could walk into a dispensary and ask to see the certificate of analysis on any product being sold, but those checks aren’t happening on everything. And, if a batch fails at a lab, there’s currently no communication to the state about which growers failed.
“It’s up to the grower to try and fix it from there,” Harper said.
A grower could still sell to a dispenser without a certificate of analysis and that dispenser could sell to consumers.
The costs of growing and producing marijuana products can be expensive, and rather than trash a bad batch a grower or processor might still want to recoup some costs by selling to a dispenser willing to buy without a certificate of analysis.
Similarly, the industry is saturated with new businesses competing for market share. A desperate dispensary might agree to purchase a failed batch for cheap in order to improve its own margins.
A few things should help consumers ensure they are purchasing quality products.
Consumers have the ability to request to see a certificate of analysis at a dispensary. It’s not just for OMMA compliance officers. If a patient is in doubt about the quality of the product, just ask to see the certificate of compliance.
“Dispensaries are supposed to have those on hand so the customer can simply ask to see it,” Rhoades said.
If no certificate is available, there are plenty of other dispensaries offering products.
Also, the OMMA is also working to implement a seed-to-sale tracking system that will provide an inventory that will make it easier for the agency to track bad products, Rhoades said. Labs will be able to make note of failed batches and OMMA compliance officers can follow through on product checks quicker and easier.
Rhoades also hopes to open a state-run lab for secondary testing of products, if needed. It will help the OMMA continue to develop its testing work moving forward.
“This is going to be a work in progress for some time as we learn ourselves as well,” Rhoades said. “We’re 18 months in (for the medical marijuana industry) but we are only 3 months in on the licensing (of labs) and one month for testing.”