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 Ph.D. 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.
Donald Land, a University of California, Davis, chemistry professor who co-founded Halent, a Sacramento medical marijuana tester, 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.”
Tests all over the map
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 percent 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 percent.
“There was no way that that plant was 29 percent,” 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.
In California, the director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, with help from a leading cannabis researcher in the Netherlands, did a similar trial with 10 top labs in the state. The results for a “same homogenized cannabis material” ranged from 4.16 percent THC to 14.3 percent, although seven of the labs had closer results, between 8.4 percent and 12.5 percent.”
Having high potency is a money-maker. Having pesticides is not, and the industry as a whole has shown little interest in learning and disclosing what industrial chemicals, if any, people are drawing into their lungs.
Most labs charge separate fees for each test the customer wants: screening for THC and other active compounds, for biological contaminants, and for pesticides. Dispensaries always want the THC test.
The Werc Shop does the biological contaminant tests on half its samples and checks about 30 percent for pesticides. Steep Hill, the state’s largest lab, tests about 65 percent of submitted samples for mold and microbes and only about 5 percent for pesticides.
Steep Hill’s president, David Lampach, says it’s too costly to routinely test for the hundreds of possible pesticides and easier to work with farmers to ensure they’re never used.
At Halent, Land says “purity is more important than potency,” and he performs only an all-inclusive screening for more than 30 pesticides as well as molds, fungi and mycotoxins.
But this tests only the most common pesticides and, with no federal tolerance guidelines for marijuana — or tobacco, as a potential reference point — the labs are left to come up with their own thresholds for what is acceptable.
In October 2009, Los Angeles police officers bought marijuana at nine dispensaries and had it tested by the Food and Drug Administration.
“They came back with a number of different pesticides,” said William Carter, the chief deputy city attorney. “Half the samples were contaminated.”
His office successfully shut down one store, the Hemp Factory in Eagle Rock; he said a sample from there contained the pesticide Bifenthrin at a level 170 times greater than the federal tolerance guidelines set for herbs and spices.
City Attorney Carmen Trutanich used this to issue depict the dispensary owners as callous criminals, not caregivers. At a news conference, he sprayed a can of Raid and asked, “Would you eat a salad with that on it?”
Boon or bane?
Ironically, Trutanich’s push for testing — culminating in a requirement in the medical marijuana ordinance, passed in 2010 but still unenforced — launched a new sector in the industry he’s expressed so much loathing for.
“When L.A. issued the ordinance that it had to be tested, labs popped up everywhere,” said Paula Morris, scientific project manager of the short-lived Medea Labs in Hollywood. “There were a lot of people getting involved who had no science background.”
In the often fractious industry, many have qualms about mandatory testing and say the contamination threat is overstated.
“With no scientific standardization, there’s no meaning to these numbers,” said Robert Jacob, director of Peace in Medicine Healing Center in Sonoma County. “I think it’s more important to know our growers. We don’t test organic tomatoes to see if they’re organic. We create standards of growing.”
But activists trying to broaden legalization are warming to the idea. “It’s kind of the quid pro quo of legalization,” said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York City. “It’s reasonable to expect that there is going to be labeling.”