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.
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% THC to 14.3%, although seven of the labs had closer results, between 8.4% and 12.5%.
Having high potency is a money-maker.
"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."
relations for the California Cannabis Assn., which is lobbying in Sacramento for statewide regulation, including testing. "You're getting dispensaries demanding growers bring tested medicine. Or patients are demanding it."
Doctors say testing is critical for patients with compromised immune systems. "Unless they're growing their own, I don't think they should buy medical cannabis if it hasn't been lab-analyzed," said Dr. Stacey Kerr, a family physician in Santa Rosa and a member of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians. "This is adding integrity to the medicine."
Kerr's group is keenly interested in a compound called cannabidiol, or CBD, which reportedly does not cause users to feel stoned, but has calming and pain-relieving effects that may help treat a range of problems, including arthritis, side effects of chemotherapy, asthma, sleep disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The lab analysis is allowing patients to choose their medicine with knowledge of what is actually in it," Kerr said.
Raber charges $50 for each of four tests that can be performed on a sample, and his dispensaries usually have between five and 20 samples tested at a time.
He placed the 200 milligrams in a vial and poured in a solution that would pull the cannabinoids out. He set the vial on a vortex to further shake the compounds out, then pipetted two milliliters into a smaller vial, which was spun in a centrifuge. From that, he transferred 600 microliters into an auto-sampler vial.
Mark Raber walked his samples over to the high-pressure liquid chromatograph, loaded them into a tray and pressed a button. Inside, a mechanical needle descended to take one microliter from the first sample and spray it through a column that separated the chemicals based on their affinity to various particles inside it.
After several hours, which included some number crunching, Raber had his stats for Ghost: 18.48% THC / 0.35 CBD.