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Testing pot in a legal vacuum

Few standards apply to quality of marijuana, because the federal government considers all use illegal.

February 12, 2012|By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times
  • Mark Raber prepares marijuana samples to be analyzed at his brother's lab, one of dozens to open in the last two years. But the labs are as unregulated and vulnerable to prosecution as dispensaries and growers.
Mark Raber prepares marijuana samples to be analyzed at his brother's… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

The tech broke the bud of marijuana into small flakes, measuring 200 milligrams into a vial. He had picked up the strain, Ghost, earlier that day from a dispensary in the Valley and guessed by its pungency and visible resin glands that it was potent.

He could have determined this the old-fashioned way, with a bong and a match. Instead, he began the meticulous process of preparing the sample for the high-pressure liquid chromatograph.

His lab, called The Werc Shop, tests medical cannabis for levels of the psychoactive ingredient known as THC and a few dozen other compounds, as well as for contaminants like molds, bacteria and pesticides that marijuana advocates don't much like to talk about. The strains that pass muster are labeled Certified Cannabaceuticals, a trademarked term.

The commercial lab is one of dozens opening in the last two years, as a rush to build an industry around medical marijuana has produced a desire — by some — to know what exactly is in the medicine.

The idea is that patients don't pop a Vicodin not knowing if the pill has 5 milligrams of hydrocodone or 15. Nor do people make drinks wondering if they are pouring beer or bourbon or Bacardi 151.

"Every pharmaceutical requires quality control and assurance, every diet supplement, every vitamin," said Jeff Raber, the Werc Shop founder and president, who has a PhD in chemistry from USC. "Why not treat this like medicine?"

With testing, pot users can stroll into a high-end store, look at a menu and decide what level of THC they want in their weed. And since dispensaries post their menus on popular directories like weedmaps.com and stickyguide.com, customers can first shop around online for the strongest strain of bud for the dollar.

But is this tidy new glimpse of marijuana retail illusory?

Only some top-end dispensaries test their products, and even they can't be sure the results are reliable. Because all marijuana possession is illegal under federal law — and the Justice Department has been cracking down recently — the nascent labs are as unregulated and vulnerable to prosecution as dispensaries and growers. In Colorado, the one lab that tried to get a license from the Drug Enforcement Administration was promptly raided by that agency.

That very week, Los Angeles passed its marijuana ordinance, which required testing by "independent and certified" labs, without specifying who was supposed to do the certifying. Long Beach followed suit two months later.

Making the situation even woollier: There are no federal standards for pesticides in marijuana.

So, along with the rest of the industry, the businesses operate in a raucous frontier, with drug-lab cowboys pulling up to pot shops with secondhand equipment to offer "lab-tested" results.

The more prominent operations in California — including Steep Hill in Oakland, Halent in Sacramento and The Werc Shop in Los Angeles County — have recently formed the Assn. of California Cannabis Laboratories to set equipment standards and methodology and to give a seal of approval for those who comply. They also hope to advance the science of marijuana, deciphering which compounds do what in a plant that can produce a broad range of psychological and physiological effects.

Donald Land, a UC Davis chemistry professor who co-founded Halent, said labs have no choice but to regulate themselves.

"Labs are popping up in people's vans. People are doing color tests and all kinds of stuff that's not very accurate. And there's people doing plain-old 'dry-labbing' — they take a sample, make a guess, put a number on it and send it out.

"Unfortunately, that's what an unregulated industry has to deal with."

::

When Ean Seeb's prized strain Bio-Diesel won top prize in the Colorado Medical Marijuana Harvest Cup, he decided to see what the numbers were.

Seeb, co-owner of a dispensary called Denver Relief, took it to a nearby lab, which informed him that the THC accounted for 18% of the sample's weight, a solid showing. Then a marijuana review website took samples of the same strain to the same lab and got different results, with one coming in at a stratospheric 29%.

"There was no way that that plant was 29%," Seeb said.

Suspicious, he decided to blind-test the labs. Seeb put his marijuana buds through a coffee grinder to homogenize samples for five local labs.

One was a mobile lab. A young woman showed up with a gas chromatograph in a yellow suitcase and a tank of helium gas. "She had Rainbow Brite make-up, a spiked belt and tight jeans," Seeb said.

Once she set up the equipment, a heavily tattooed man joined her and donned a white lab coat. He spent two hours having problems calibrating the machine, while dumping his used solvents down the toilet. Seeb asked him what he did with the part of the sample he didn't use in the test.

"I smoke it," the man replied.

Within a couple of days, the results from all five labs came back, and they were all over the chart. "The whole thing was a joke," Seeb said.

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