Pubdate: Sat, 11 Apr 2015
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2015 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Gary Mason
Page: S1


Although it's been two years since Washington State legalized 
marijuana, the process involved in creating a retail industry for it 
has not been without its growing pains. Gary Mason weeds through the 
problems facing strain-potency testing

In a fresh white lab coat, his name embroidered atop a chest pocket, 
Cameron Miller looks and sounds every bit the chemist that he is. 
When he begins talking about the wonders of terpenes - the organic 
compounds that give plants their distinct odour - he could be a 
sommelier discussing the power and influence that tannins have on wine.

"Rosemary and oregano, for example, have some very unique terpene 
profiles," says Mr. Miller, lab manager at the Werc Shop. "Very, very 
pungent. You identify instantly with the scent. Terpenes can be very 
rich and powerful in their presentation. Intricate, complex and beautiful too."

Among Mr. Miller's favourite terpene-producing plants is one he 
happens to handle every day: cannabis. It has an amazing variety of 
aromas, he insists, ones he's not particularly adept at describing 
but which nonetheless interest him far more than the element of pot 
that seizes the imagination of most users: potency.

While it has been two years since Washington State voters approved 
Initiative 502, which legalized marijuana, it has only been nine 
months since the first retail outlets opened. There have been some 
early growing pains. And one of the areas that has come under intense 
scrutiny is the system being used to measure the strength of the pot 
hitting the market.

There are state officials, lab technicians and state-approved sellers 
who suspect samples are being tampered with either before or during 
the sampling process. There's been the suggestion some growers are 
"spiking" their samples to give them higher levels of 
tetrahydrocannabinol - or THC - the chemical responsible for most of 
cannabis's psychological effects.

The higher the level of THC, the more the grower is able to charge 
for his crop, and the more retailers can charge at the counter. Some 
labs have reported THC levels in the 30- to 40-per-cent range - a 
number that defies possibility in many people's minds. Mostmarijuana 
contains THC levels ranging in the mid-teens to the mid-to-high 20s.

Randy Simmons, marijuana project director for the state, believes 
some cannabis producers are manipulating their samples before handing 
them over to a lab for inspection. There is a broad suspicion this is 
being done by spraying the test product with hash oil or dipping it 
in "kief" - a powder derived from the buds of the marijuana plant. 
Both actions will boost the traceable amounts of THC. There is also 
thinking that growers are cherry-picking the very best buds to send 
off for inspection, again helping to produce a THC number that 
doesn't reflect that of the overall crop.

"Part of the issue is right now we leave it up to the growers to 
produce the sample to the lab and I'm not sure that is what we want 
to do," said Mr. Simmons.

The state-approved marijuana testing labs depend on the growers for 
their business. If the producers don't like the results they're 
getting at Lab A they can take their business to Lab B - creating an 
essential struggle at the centre of the testing system.

Brad Douglass, the scientific director at The Werc Shop, agrees that 
there is a financial incentive for labs to game the system on behalf 
of their customers.

"We think it's just the way the market is currently set up where the 
product is currently being valued by percentage of THC," he said in 
an interview. "Anytime you have an incentive like that there's a good 
chance some people will act on the incentive."

The Werc Shop was formerly a cancer research laboratory that went out 
of business. But Werc was able to use much of the high-end equipment 
that came with the premises, including liquid and gas chromatographs. 
The shelves are lined with beakers and crucibles, droppers and 
graduated cylinders. A nearby white board contains words that are 
foreign to most of us: Spilanthol, Acitral, quassin. There are 
diagrams of chemical compounds. A sample of marijuana brownies sit in 
a sterile plastic bag waiting for testing.

When a cannabis sample arrives at the lab, it is first weighed and 
inspected for yeast, mould or other harmful substances. To test for 
potency, the cannabis is placed in a tube with a solvent that allows 
the chemical elements to detach as the tube spins in a centrifuge. 
After that, one part of the same goes in the liquid chromatograph, 
another in its gas counterpart. UV lamps are later used to 
distinguish what chemicals are present, including the marijuana's 
terpene and cannabinoid profile.

There is believed to be nearly 500 natural components contained in a 
cannabis plant, of which nearly 70 are unique to marijuana. These are 
known as cannabinoids, the most famous being THC, which is primarily 
responsible for the plant's psychoactive effects on people. Even 
though a chemical found in marijuana known as cannabidiol (CBD) is 
believed to contain many of the plant's medicinal powers, it's still 
THC that the common user - and grower - is after.

The Washington State Liquor Board, which oversees the legalized 
marijuana market, is now exploring different means of eliminating the 
possibility of lab samples being "juiced" by growers prior to testing 
and ensuring the accuracy of the tests themselves.

"We have started a secret shopper program," marijuana project 
director Mr. Simmons said in an interview. "This is where we got out 
and buy something off the retail shelf and get it tested by an 
independent lab. If there is a discrepancy between that result and 
the information [THC levels] on the package that was sold to our 
secret shopper than we go back to the lab that did the testing for it 
and we go to the grower involved to see what's up."

Mr. Simmons says his department now has staff that is doing nothing 
but monitoring the content of the pot being sold.

"We're seeing strengths here that you don't see anywhere else in the 
world which is impossible. It's a plant. It's going to do what a 
plant does. We need to get control over what's happening that should 
not be happening."

The state is also considering new ways of obtaining the marijuana 
samples at the front end of the testing system, taking that part of 
the procedure out of the hands of growers and putting it into ones 
owned by an independent arbiter. As well, the liquor board is also 
cognizant that some of the discrepancies in testing results could be 
the fault of the lab and the result of faulty equipment or sloppy procedures.

Some lab leaders would like to see far more oversight of the lab work 
and have even suggested imposing a validated methodology on the 
companies. That would mean the labs would all have to abide by the 
same testing protocol, using the same equipment.

Back at the lab, Cameron Miller talks about where he hopes the 
marijuana industry heads. One day, he imagines people walking into 
cannabis outlets far more interested in strains that smell and taste 
good than stuff that renders you near paralyzed by high THC content.

"I'd like to see the market geared towards more of a wine crowd," he 
said. "One that has a more sophisticated palate for marijuana and is 
not just focused on potency. That's my eventual hope anyway."



What's in a strain?

Marijuana is a complex plant, with dozens of components contributing 
to the smell, taste and potency of the drug, though most users are 
concerned with two in particular:


Cannabidiol, or CBD, is thought to be the source of some of 
marijuana's medicinal powers. It also tempers the psychoactive 
effects of THC. Early research has suggested CBD has 
anti-inflammatory effects, can ease nausea and even help with 
epilepsy, though Health Canada cautions those effects have not yet 
been demonstrated in clinical trials. Producers licensed under 
Canada's medical marijuana system typically grow strains that have 
only trace amounts of CBD, but strains as high as 9 per cent and even 
the mid-teens are becoming increasingly popular.


Commonly known as THC, tetrahydrocannabinol produces the typical 
"high" associated with consuming marijuana. For many recreational 
users - and, consequently, growers - the higher the THC content the 
better. The percentage of THC in marijuana typically ranges from the 
mid-teens to about 20 per cent, though the proportion of THC in some 
strains targeted at medical users is lower.

- - SOURCES: The Werc Shop laboratory; Health Canada
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom