How potent, really, is that Cannabis? Does it have powdery mildew or mites? Is it free of metals and growing chemicals? It's up the folks at Analytical 360 to know.
Testing the Limits
The testing of Cannabis has existed for a short time, especially relative to the thousands of years in which Cannabis has played a role in human medicine and tradition.
It wasn't until the early 2000s that the idea of potency testing for Cannabis flowers became popular. Before then, pot was simply pot. Patients in the early years were forced to buy whatever their local connection had, with choice or variety rarely an option.
But as medical marijuana slowly emerged, high-quality Cannabis began flowing more freely into the hands of scientists and patients alike. By the end of 2010, having a high THC percentage from a test was a major mark of quality.
Fast forward to 2013. Testing companies have spread across the states that have medical marijuana statutes. The companies all have different methods, mindsets and highly calibrated machines with one goal in mind: Figuring out what makes Cannabis such effective medicine.
Why test Cannabis
The biggest reason people first started testing Cannabis was to determine potency. THC percentages above 20 percent are considered to be excellent quality, and knowing the amount of THC in a flower or concentrate gives an accurate measure for effects and pricing.
Some old-school folks are either scared of or threatened by testing their Cannabis. Attitudes are changing quickly though, and a newer generation of growers and access point owners are emerging that have a desire to conquer the unknown, and to prove that their medicine is the best. But the testing has far-reaching implications beyond simply grading medicine. It provides protection for consumers, and ensures safe practices by access points that are providing medicine to sick patients.
In the world of agriculture, most food is tested for molds and the presence of pesticides before being sent into homes. The same should be said of Cannabis. Microbial testing allows for a medicine to be graded for use either medically or recreationally, or can show that a crop is not safe for human consumption. Common molds tested for include Alternaria, Aspergillus, Botrytis, Cladosporium, Penicillium and yeast.
All these microorganisms can have negative effects for patients, especially those with compromised or weak immune systems. Of them all, Aspergillus (black mold) is the most dangerous. But even with potentially deadly side-effects, more than 60 of the strains of Aspergillus are considered medically useful in some cases. It's this type of uncertainty that makes testing a must for medical Cannabis.
Building an independent lab
On a sleepy section of Stone Avenue in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood is a small office that has been converted into a Cannabis laboratory. Samples flow in daily from access points and growers across the state, all looking to learn what their Cannabis tests at.
For the five founders of Analytical 360, testing Cannabis has become a passion as much as it has a job.
"It's not just about testing strains to say whether one is good or bad," said Ed Stremlow, chief operating officer of Analytical 360. "It's producing results for patients to make an informed decision about their medicine."
The founders originally started planning in 2010, working out of home offices to put the idea to work. Each person plays a different role within the company, making for a balanced partnership. There's Randall Oliver and Laura Taubner, the two chief scientists who developed the method for testing. John Brown is the IT wiz behind the website, and Brenton Dawber and Stremlow both serve as management.
"We all feel we need each other, but you have growing pains. Besides being friends we've had to learn how to work with each other," Dawber explained. "We try to use everyone's skills."
The process began when the company found their storefront location, a necessity to even apply for a lab license. Then the machines came in: two high-pressure liquid chromatography devices. Testing isn't as simple as taking Cannabis and letting the machine do the work. Months of calibration and practice tests were needed to develop what is known as a "method" for various forms of Cannabis.
"We started with a peer-reviewed method for basic Cannabis testing and had to develop from there our own specialized method," Stremlow said. "We keep the two machines running to test them against each other. One with the peer-reviewed method and one with the new process."
By checking one sample against the other, the scientists are able to ensure that results are accurate. This accuracy and constant double checking has allowed for enhanced testing methods for medibles, concentrates and new Cannabinoids. Also in the works is solvency testing for concentrates. It should be available starting in April, taking a major step forward in ensuring safety for patients.
"With edibles and concentrates, it is critical to test," Stremlow said. "The difference between a 10 mg THC sample and a 100 mg THC sample can make or ruin a patient's day, or their dosage cycle. Depending on patient needs, you can choose a strain and a dosage. You can't do that without testing."
All this is why potency testing is so important for patient safety, and for access points to fully inform patients about their medicine.
"Potency testing is important for many reasons," Stremlow said. "Patients need to know what their medicine potency is, and it is very important for cultivators and access point owners to choose their medicine. It also helps access points reduce liability with truth in packaging."
Most patients have had instances when they donated for a medible at a collective simply based off packaging. Sometimes products promise amazing potency but don't live up to the claims in the end. A patient might be upset because a certain product didn't medicate him enough. But when the opposite happens -- when a patient buys a medible that isn't labeled and he overmedicates -- negative side-effects can happen. Patients have ended up in the hospital from symptoms of heavy THC dosing, and can experience six to 12 hours of panic attacks and nausea. With the extreme potency offered by medibles for those who need larger doses, it is critical that patients know what they are ingesting.
Testing is also a vital tool for growers of all levels. By testing methods of growing or phenotypes, a grower can scientifically choose the most potent strains or those with specific desirable characteristics. It can also make a grower aware of any mold, and stop major problems from happening. By understanding the science behind a PH change or new nutrients, a grower can dial in his garden to produce the finest medical Cannabis.
As Washington now faces the potential of having two Cannabis industries -- medical and recreational -- it is more important than ever that the medical industry shine with best practices and quality products.
"I believe we are in a position to make medical look better than recreational," Stremlow said. "I think we need both, but true testing will show that recreational products do not meet the standard of quality needed to meet patient needs."
As I-502's hold on Washington deepens, testing could be a coup de gras for those forces who want to see medical Cannabis ended.
"For medical Cannabis standards, as strict as they are and should be, they should be followed. For a cancer patient or a daily user Ã‚â€¦ they should not be smoking moldy pot or impure BHO," Stremlow said. "Looking at the acceptable levels for recreational ... patients don't need that."
With Analytical 360's website bringing in hundreds of thousands of hits each month, the science behind testing Cannabis is being spread faster than ever.
"We get hits from all over the world," Stremlow said. "And all over America. The world is watching these test results, waiting to see what happens."
The truly revolutionary aspect of Analytical 360 is that it posts every test result they've ever run on its website. The good, the bad and the ugly. The beauty in that approach lies in its transparency, illustrating the independent nature of a third-party service. Each test result is also given a double-sided card with test results printed for the grower or access point to display with the medicine. All these factors encourage the results to be shared, not hidden, because the Cannabis might not be perfect.
"Besides the testing, displaying the data correctly is huge for us," Dawber said. "The website is vital to this whole project."
With 4,000 tests under its belt in the first year alone, the company has a lot of data to sift through. But each test is a step forward for the industry, and for the patients who are dependent on the medicine. While the future of medical marijuana in a I-502 world is still uncertain, testing brings a solid ground for the community to stand on. Access points should be testing their medicine, especially medibles/concentrates, and the patients should be demanding safe and tested products for their needs.
After all, it is our medicine.