Given the tight regulations of Colorado's medical marijuana industry, the question of why strains and MMJ products aren't run through the typical rigors of content disclosure comes up a lot. But that's all going to be answered in the coming years, says Mark Slaugh.
"The industry is certainly evolving towards testing," says the membership director for the Colorado Springs Medical Cannabis Council. "You can't walk into a liquor store and buy a bottle of alcohol without knowing the proof. [Likewise], you want to know how strong the medicine you're taking is."
There are already private labs that analyze the chemical composition of marijuana, testing not only for levels of the psychotropic substance tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), but less sexy and well-known cannabinoids like cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN). They also look for mold, fungus and potentially toxic chemicals.
One of the problems, however, is that these labs can't be licensed and calibrated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, as others can, because of the Schedule I substance designation assigned to marijuana. In fact, just applying for the license can result in a forceful visit from the federal policing agency.
But there are other issues patients have to deal with, says Ian Barringer, founder of Boulder's Rm3 Labs. And those include variations in the product to be tested in the first place. "A [batch of popular strain] Sour Diesel in the hands of [a grower] who's really good could get 24 percent THC," he says. "Whereas in the hands of someone who doesn't know what they're doing, it might yield 12 or 14 percent, or something like that."
A sticky issue
And it matters. One elderly Colorado Springs patient we interviewed, who identified herself only as Elizabeth, says, "My lungs look like I've been smoking cigarettes for 20 years. So I need very strong sativa, so then it only takes me one or two puffs. ... I discovered through trial and error that I need over 20 percent [THC]."
Her case isn't unique, says Barringer. "Certain strains definitely work best for certain patients," he says. "And there are certain patients where they've gotten to the point where ... low-grade weed isn't going to cut it anymore because it's just not giving them the effect that they need."
The problem has been exacerbated by Colorado's "70-30" rule, says the lab owner, which requires dispensaries to grow 70 percent of their product in-house. "Before '70-30,' most growers I knew were proficient only in one or two, or maybe four, strains, because they all have slightly different nutrient and light and heat and timing requirements," says Barringer. "Now what you have is that these dispensaries have to grow a dozen different strains in-house, [and] they'll test all their strains once, and then spot-check them from time to time just to make sure that nothing is going wrong with the grow process."
Unfortunately, says Barringer, managing so many different strains in one grow-op means there are so many more opportunities for error. "If they have one bad day at the grow — a light goes on too early, or too late — it could change the flowering cycle and knock that batch down in the THC ranges."
Safe to say ...
The takeaway is that for now, patients can't always be certain a given strain's listed THC content is actually what they're getting. Fortunately, nearly everyone interviewed expressed a commitment to establishing a set of consistent standards and regulations.
"We actually have a workgroup of labs working on it," says Julie Postlethwait, spokeswoman with the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division. "That will definitely be one of the main topics that will be discussed and dealt with in the next rulemaking process."
As far as what to expect: "Basically, we will dictate specific types of machines that will be used ... for a standard to hold those labs against," she says. "The thing that's difficult about it is, there's not a lot of hard science in regards to THC levels and cannabinoids ... because only recently have standards been available and in reach financially. The industry is continuing to change and get better, but a lot of that information was simply unavailable."
With regards to actually implementing these rules, Postlethwait declines to offer any specific time frame.
Of course, the needs of the industry could all change come November. Should we see passage of Amendment 64 — the "legalization" amendment — testing standards will likely be scaled up to include all marijuana products, not just medical, says Brian Vicente, who co-directs the decriminalization campaign and drafted much of its proposed legislation.
"Whether that's done at the state or local levels, or by the Department of Revenue," he says, "I think that's safe to say that that's going to happen in the future."