Pubdate: Mon, 08 Oct 2012
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2012 The Seattle Times Company
Author: Jonathan Martin


No Inspections

Labs Provide the Only Outside Quality Control

The kitchen in the weather-beaten beachfront cabin near Olympia is 
cramped and freckled with mysterious brown stains. A shaggy dog named 
Butter is poking around, and a quarter-sized spider dangles at the window.

It's not the best situation, Jim Chaney acknowledges, for a homebased 
business making marijuana infused products, called "medibles."

But in Washington's scantily regulated medical-marijuana industry, no 
one is checking how such food and drink products are made, or how 
safe they are. And there's a lot to check. A dizzying array of 
cannabis-infused products - from taco mix to cotton candy, from 
pulled pork to carbonated colas - have begun showing up in the past 
two years on the shelves at storefront marijuana dispensaries.

Medibles are the fastest-growing segment of Washington's fast growing 
medical-marijuana industry. Their wares represent perhaps a third of 
sales at storefront dispensaries.

And business could really take off if voters in November approve 
Initiative 502. The measure would legalize marijuana sales for 
recreational use and create state-licensed marijuana stores that 
presumably would carry a variety of cannabis-infused food and drink. 
Those products are seen as a tastier, more healthful alternative to 
smoking, in which dosages of THC can be more exact, and more 
appealing to older users.

But for now, medibles producers operate even more underground than 
dispensaries. And even though they make food, no one is inspecting 
them because state officials defer to the federal ban on marijuana.

That frustrates Chaney. He has bounced among four production sites, 
most recently losing a commercial kitchen in Seattle when his 
landlord in August got a cease-and desist letter from the Drug 
Enforcement Administration (DEA) and shut down.

In legal ambiguity, some medibles entrepreneurs try to police 
themselves, paying for testing at special medical-marijuana labs.

Even with such tests, Chaney and others in the industry are nervous 
that a patient will get sick, or overdose on a supercharged product 
coming from a grungy kitchen.

"You have people making products that are not regulated in any way, 
with no instructions for how to be stored, no expiration date," said 
Chaney, 27, who has produced infused chai-flavored drinks and 
capsules under the name Dream Cream. "The state is just failing to do 
any kind of quality health inspection."

No state rules

Washington in 1998 became one of the first states to legalize medical 
marijuana, long before the emergence of storefront dispensaries or medibles.

Since they've arrived, state law hasn't kept up. A 2011 bill, passed 
by the Legislature, would have regulated medibles, requiring 
including licenses, kitchen inspections and independent quality 
testing. Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed most of it, saying inspections 
opened state employees to federal jeopardy.

Because federal law defines marijuana as a Schedule I drug, with no 
medical value, cannabis-infused foods are considered "adulterated" - 
or unsafe - products under federal food-safety codes.

Other medical-marijuana states, including Colorado and Arizona, 
essentially ignore federal law and require inspections of medibles 
producers. But absent a state law here requiring them, the Washington 
State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), which oversees wholesale 
kitchens, follows federal guidelines.

"Food products containing marijuana therefore fall outside WSDA 
jurisdiction because they aren't legal commercial products," said 
agency spokesman Jason Kelly.

Public Health

Seattle & King County, which inspects retail kitchens, also balks. 
"Certainly we want to assure the food safety across the county, but 
the circumstances are a little unclear in this situation," said 
spokeswoman Hilary Karasz.

State Sen. Jeanne KohlWelles, sponsor of the 2011 bill, may try 
again, depending on the election outcome in November.

"That entrepreneurial spirit won't go away. There has to be some 
regulatory standards," she said.

Soda with a punch

That spirit - and a good idea - hit Tim Mains and his sister last 
year: medicated mints.

Rebecca Mains, who works in an upscale Seattle restaurant, 
experimented before settling on a recipe involving cannabis extract, 
that appeals to a more affluent niche of the medical-marijuana 
market, her brother said.

"You know exactly what you're getting when you eat one," said Tim 
Mains, a 29year-old whose job history includes making T-shirts for 
fraternities and poker players. "So your first experience isn't 
overpowering and scary, it's mellow and pleasant."

They manufacture in a friend's commercial kitchen, and debuted Mary 
Jane Mints at this year's Hempfest. Medibles, he said, "is going to 
be the next big thing."

But it's not an easy business. Many commercial kitchens won't rent to 
medibles. And it remains risky, as evidenced by the recent DEA crackdown.

"Technically what I'm doing is manufacturing a controlled substance," 
sighed Matt, 27, owner of soda maker Pack A Punch. For that reason, 
he didn't want his name used.

One of the more successful medibles makers - tattoos across his 
knuckles read "SELF MADE" - Matt was among the first to list 
ingredients and design a flashy label. A bottle, he said, contains 21 
mg of active THC and costs about $9.

He and his six employees, all with food-handler permits, crank out 
about 15 cases of soda and 300 chocolate bars a month from the 
kitchen of his friend's bar, after closing time.

Matt said he is a stickler for quality control and hygiene, even if 
no one is checking, for a good reason: "If someone gets sick from a 
soda, why would they want another?"

Quality-control labs

The closest thing to quality control in the medical-marijuana 
industry is the handful of local laboratories testing marijuana.

They, too, work without state inspections, but look and feel like 
small biotech startups, spending $100,000 or more to launch.

Their tests - about $50 per sample, using varying methods - provide 
results for six different chemical compounds - or "cannabinoids" - in 
marijuana, and can look for mold or pesticides, although those tests 
aren't popular.

Growers, dispensaries and medibles makers are the customers, and 
display test results on the packaging like a seal of approval - so 
long as they're positive results.

Testing is particularly critical for medibles, said Klaas Hesselink, 
founder of CannaTest on Bainbridge.

Otherwise, "it's throwing a handful of pills into the air, opening 
your mouth, and seeing what falls in," he said.

The test for THC - the magic cannabinoid - is most popular; a finding 
of 21 percent can jack the per-pound price by $400. Other compounds, 
including those that provide pain relief without a high, are 
increasingly coveted among growers.

Labs can also serve as marijuana's Consumer Reports. One lab, 
Analytical 360, based in Wallingford, published a test result in 
April showing an apple-flavored soda, supposedly chock-full of THC, 
had only trace amounts.

Alex Prindle, a restaurateur who co-founded Northwest Botanical 
Analysis in Fremont, sees testing as a sign that the medical 
marijuana is maturing. "As more people test, the quality will go up."

And it's overdue, especially in the unregulated medibles. "This is a 
product that's coming from some guy's basement, and it's being given 
to a cancer patient," said Prindle.

Self-policing A small group, including medibles makers and testing 
labs, are making the move to self-regulate. Guidelines from the 
group, the Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics, include 
business basics: Pay all taxes. Get food handler permits. Follow Food 
and Drug Administration labeling standards. Don't produce anything 
requiring refrigeration, or hot handling, in a personal kitchen.

Those standards, however, are voluntary, not widely followed, and 
they don't provide any legal protection from state prosecution, let 
alone federal charges.

Ironically, that has likely helped dissuade bigger medibles 
manufacturers, from California or Colorado from moving in. Tripp 
Keber, managing director of Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, Colorado's 
largest medibles manufacturer, said Washington is an attractive 
market, but its laws are too loose to justify investment. "I'm not 
going to risk breaking the rules in Washington and putting the 
mothership at risk," said Keber.

Chaney, of Dream Cream, is also leery. He said he asked state 
agriculture and county health officials about inspection. Neither 
would provide guidance, let alone inspections.

After losing access to the commercial kitchen in Seattle, he has 
stopped making cannabis-infused drinks, which require refrigeration. 
In his beach cabin, Chaney focuses on capsules made from a 
coconut-oil cannabis extract.

Like other medibles manufacturers, and testing-lab owners, Chaney 
wonders about what he sees on dispensary shelves, including a burrito 
with no label showing ingredients or an expiration date.

"It's ridiculous. You don't go into a pharmacy and get a burrito," 
said Chaney. "The food stuff can get absurd. It shows the holes in 
the medical-cannabis law."

Staff reporter Maureen O'hagan contributed to this report.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom