Working in a chemistry lab can be tedious at times, with all the repetition, quality control and detailed documentation that the job entails. But one group of Colorado chemists is having fun on the job these days as they work to develop new ways to measure the safety and potency of recreational marijuana.
“We’ve received all kinds of different samples, from edibles to flowers to topical creams like a body butter infused with cannabis,” said Bugi Perrone, who co-owns the Denver-based cannabis testing lab Gobi Analytical, Inc. with her husband Peter. “Every time we receive something out of the ordinary, we have to come up with a way of doing a better extraction [of the chemicals in the sample] and testing them. We kind of have fun being scientists, and that’s a good thing.”
Since May, state law has required all manufacturers of retail edible marijuana products like infused candies, cookies and sodas to have their wares tested for potency, and the growers who sell cannabis flowers to retail marijuana shops have also been subjected to mandatory potency testing since June.
Testing for the safety of pot products—including the presence of mold, pesticides, and metals—will be required starting on Oct. 1, while another requirement that edibles be tested to ensure even distribution of the psychoactive compound THC has been put off indefinitely by the state. Still, the testing market could expand even further next summer, when Colorado’s current medical marijuana rules will sunset and legislators may introduce mandatory testing requirements for the medical cannabis industry, too.
So far only three labs—all of them in the Denver metro area—have achieved the state license and lab certifications required to test the potency of retail marijuana. Four others (including one in Ft. Collins and another in Boulder) have been licensed but are not yet certified, a process that requires a daylong inspection and review of a lab’s procedures and the credentials of the scientists who work there.
For now, that leaves just a handful of lab technicians in charge of gauging the potency of the edible and smokeable products made by the 59 infused product manufacturers and 273 cannabis growers who supply the recreational pot market, according to records maintained by the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division. Two of the state’s three active labs claim to serve well over 100 clients each, while the third lab’s business is still ramping up.
Despite the heavy workload, lab owners say they aren’t having trouble keeping up with demand, even if doing so sometimes requires logging long days.
“I do not believe that there is a shortage of cannabis testing labs in Colorado at this time,” wrote Heather Despres, the lab director for Denver-based CannLabs, in an email. “CannLabs has been investing in our facility to meet the increase in demand for testing.”
Indeed, the owners of all three of Colorado’s active cannabis testing labs say they’ve hired new scientists to keep pace with demand since the state testing rules kicked in. As a result, they say, clients typically get their test results back in two to five business days.
“We hired some people to keep with the flow,” said Perrone. “We’ve seen a lot of increase since the second week of June. At the beginning it was just me and Peter and now we have five people, including a chemist, a process manager and a lab technician.”
Potency limits on THC, testing for four other cannabis compounds
Cannabis contains more than 400 unique compounds, but for now Colorado labs are focusing on only five.
The high-inducing compound THC is the most well known of these, and if labs detect more than 100 milligrams of the stuff in a single marijuana product then its sale is deemed illegal under state law.
Other compounds targeted in potency testing include THCA, the acid that converts to THC when subjected to heat (i.e. smoked or vaporized); CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid with anti-inflammatory and other therapeutic properties; CBDA, the precursor acid for CBD; and CBN, a chemical created when THC is metabolized in the body.
Typically, potency tests rely on machines called High Performance Liquid Chromatographs, which send cannabis plant oil extracted from a testing sample through a series of filters to capture and measure its various component parts.
Aside from conducting scores of potency tests each week, lab owners say they plan to spend the summer perfecting their techniques for measuring mold, pesticides and other contaminants before the state’s cannabis safety rules kick in this fall. And state requirements aside, there’s plenty more to explore about the cannabis plant itself. Many lab owners say they wish that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) would turn over highly concentrated samples of lesser-known cannabinoids maintained by government researchers, which labs could use to calibrate their instruments and test for the 395 relatively obscure cannabinoids that current tests ignore.
“People are interested in the medical potential [of less popular cannabinoids], and the DEA has samples of them in their purest form,” said Jeannine Machon, the owner of the CMT Laboratories in Denver. “If we were a DEA licensed lab we could get [those samples], but as long as we test marijuana we can’t be a DEA licensed lab. So it’s a catch-22.”
Scientists are also interested in beginning to test cannabis for terpenes, the aromatic compounds that impart different strains of the plant with distinct flavors and smells ranging from passion fruit to parsley and from lemongrass to lilac.
Although the demand for terpene testing among marijuana growers has been modest so far, Machon predicts that it will ramp up as growers adapt to the state’s potency and safety testing rules and focus on marketing their products to an increasingly gourmet class of cannabis consumers.
“Terpene testing is all about what the product tastes like when it’s smoked,” Machon said. “No one wants something that tastes like skunk any more.”