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Labs Worry As Pot Testing Standards Lag

Before legal marijuana in Washington hits store shelves, it will have to be tested. Special pot labs will check for potency, molds, foreign matter and bacteria like E. coli. It’s a key part of the recreational marijuana market approved by Washington voters last fall.

But setting the standards for how to lab-test pot turns out to be pretty complicated. And now some lab managers worry they won’t be ready in time.

At Analytical 360 lab in Seattle, Caitlin Reece breaks the seal on a small, clear package of goldfish-shaped crackers. They look just like the ones my kids and I love to eat. But they’re not. The crackers are cannabis-infused goldfish called Purple Haze. Reece’s job is to grind them up and test their potency.

“Nice homogenized sample to do the test,” she says.

Reece says crackers and gummy candies are common cannabis-infused products. The strangest food she’s ever tested?

“I think one time we had tomato bisque soup with a cornbread. And I think it came out pretty potent,” says Reece.

Randall Oliver of Analytical 360 in Seattle.

Analytical 360 currently tests pot and pot products for the largely self-regulated medical cannabis market. But the lab’s chief science officer, Randall Oliver, has high hopes for the future. He wants his testing team to play a big role in Washington’s new recreational marijuana experiment. The problem: time is running out, he says.

“We need time to prepare. We need a few months to get this all up and running,” he says.  

Pot stores could open in Washington as early as next spring. Oliver says the state still hasn’t told him what his lab will need to do to get certified.

“We’re up against the wall and we need to know what’s going on as far as what methods we’re going to use and what tests are going to be required,” Oliver says.

At Washington’s Liquor Control Board, deputy director Randy Simmons acknowledges the lab-testing piece is taking longer than they had hoped.

Randy Simmons of Washington’s Liquor Control Board.

“Oh, I think we would have liked to have it all done by this point in time,” he says.

Simmons says the biggest challenge has been developing a reliable test for measuring THC levels in marijuana—the one test Washington’s new law requires.

“There’s been a lot of examples of the same plant going to various labs and getting different THC results,” Simmons says.

The man working on a solution to that problem is Roy Upton. He’s with a California nonprofit called the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia. Upton is basically writing the recipe book for pot labs to follow when testing cannabis. He, too, acknowledges it’s taking longer than he had hoped. 

Upton says it’s not easy to nail down lab protocols—he calls it a recipe—that produce accurate and consistent lab results each and every time.

“If you find that some step in the recipe is not optimal, then you have to tweak and, yes, that’s what we’ve been doing this whole time,” Upton says.

Upton hopes to have the recipe book—called a monograph—finished in the next six to eight weeks.

Washington’s draft rules for legal marijuana also call for pot-infused foods be tested, both for potency and microbiological contaminants. But the Liquor Board’s Randy Simmons says no one has even begun to write those standards.

“That will not be done by the time we get the stores open,” he says.

Still, Simmons says there are other ways to ensure marijuana-laced foods are safe.

“The extract going into the edibles is safe because that will have been tested, and then the food manufacturing process is safe. So if the two pieces are safe the assumption right now is that the food product itself will be safe,” he says.

Simmons says he’s confident there’s still time to create the lab testing infrastructure for legal, recreational pot in Washington. But at Analytical 360, Randall Oliver says his lab is in limbo over what equipment to buy, how many new employees to hire, and what training to give them.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.