Potency and purity: Inside a medical marijuana testing lab (photos, video)
Gallery: Testing marijuana for potency and purity at ProVerde Laboratories in Milford
MILFORD — The “Ultra Performance Liquid Chromatography” machine opens like a cabinet and in goes a tray containing 48 glass vials.
An automated arm swings over the tray and a needle extracts marijuana samples from each vial.
The samples are injected into the system for analysis.
This happens because the gummies that would be made with such marijuana samples stop being cute if they cause cancer.
ProVerde Laboratories in Milford is one of three such labs certified by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) to test samples from medical marijuana businesses.
Tucked into the back of an industrial park at 420 Fortune Blvd., near Interstate 495 in Worcester County, chemists and technicians at the lab use chemical reactions and sophisticated machines. They are testing cannabis for contaminants like heavy metals — lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic — and pesticides, and also to gauge the potency of the sample weed.
Chief scientific officer Christopher Hudalla gave The Republican a tour of the lab Sept. 25.
“We test gummies, caramels, lotions, pops, nasal spray. They have to test the raw pot before they can make anything,” Hudalla said.
The lab later tests samples of each kind of product a company makes with the pot, from edibles and rubs to tinctures and weed that is smoked. Testing is done with computers and other equipment and doesn’t involve lab employees ingesting anything, he said.
“There’s no anecdotal testing permitted,” he said.
Untested pot has been available forever and continues to be accessible from street dealers and friends of friends. But a veteran pot-smoker boasting of years of street-acquired tokes without getting sick might be hasty. Heavy metals are naturally occurring in the environment and can accumulate in humans.
“Lead if ingested slows down developmental processes,” Hudalla said.
Mercury ingested can cause headaches, insomnia and muscle atrophy.
Cadmium can lead to respiratory and kidney problems.
Ingest enough arsenic and the result can be cancer, liver disease and death.
Most marijuana companies grow without pesticides since a lot of the cultivation is done indoors. But given the bacteria and other stuff that attaches to people, an employee can bring in traces of pesticides and other contaminants on clothing, Hudalla said.
That’s why companies that produce marijuana use hyper-care protocols such as requiring employees to change clothes and wear masks and other infection-blocking clothing and even undergo air showers, he said.
Legal pot is big business. Sales in North America were $9.2 billion in 2017 and projected to hit $47.3 billion in a decade, according to Forbes.com.
In order to position themselves to share in such revenue, those who launch marijuana companies must spend millions of dollars on lawyers, engineers, growing specialists and other employees, as well as fees to regulatory agencies.
“They have a lot of money riding on this,” Hudalla said.
Hence the prioritization of safety.
And the bewilderment of industry folks like Hudalla in the face of opposition to legalization of marijuana and the accompanying regulations that aim to ensure pot in the community is safe.
“The question is, do you want safe marijuana or do you want a sub-system? It’s not going anywhere. It’s been here for a long time. It’s going to be here for a long time,” he said.
“If we choose to pretend it’s not here what will happen is the black market will thrive. You’ll have it grown with pesticides,” he said.
Hudalla and partner Dorian DesLauriers began ProVerde Laboratories five years ago in a 200-square-foot room in a warehouse in Franklin. In 2014 the lab moved to its current site, a 16,000-square-foot facility with over 20 employees who are chemists, engineers and technicians, he said.
“It’s a pretty diverse set of backgrounds that we employ in terms of skill level,” he said.
ProVerde Laboratories is accredited annually by Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation Inc. of Troy, Michigan.
“We have to do that to be able to demonstrate to our clients and to the state that our methods work,” Hudalla said.
Here’s what the lab does, according to Hudalla:
Samples weighing 8 grams to 10 grams arrive at the lab from a medical marijuana company.
Regulations require that delivery vehicles include two guards and use GPS tracking.
The marijuana samples are contained in locked boxes the size of a briefcase. The boxes are stored in a frame that is welded to the vehicle.
At the lab, the guards sign into a registry.
With the guards still in house, the marijuana is weighed in order to ensure the sample corresponds to the weight listed on the box’s manifest.
“We verify, so that there can be no discrepancy,” Hudalla said.
No dramatic weight discrepancy has ever occurred, he said.
Identification of each sample is logged into the ProVerde computer system and the testing begins.
Every step at ProVerde Laboratories occurs under video surveillance.
“There’s a significant number of cameras in the cannabis industry. You’d think we were making OxyContin,” he said, jokingly referring to the powerful opioid painkiller.
Despite the camera coverage, the samples from each company are small, little pot is present in the lab at any given time and the tests result in it being destroyed, he said.
“If somebody wanted to rob us, they would get maybe $100 worth of product,” he said. “And so we kind of laugh at the level of security we have here.”
Tests are done to determine levels of:
Cannabinoids. They are chemical compounds secreted by cannabis plants. Over 100 kinds have been identified in cannabis plants. Main ones are CBD, or cannabidiol, and THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the ingredients in the plant that can provide relief from pain, anxiety, inflammation and insomnia, and, in the case of THC, the high most associated with pot.
Terpenes. Terpenes are essential oils found in marijuana plants. They emit the familiar pot aroma and in some cases have anti-inflammatory effects.
Pesticides. Substances used to destroy insects or other organisms harmful to plants and have been linked to cancer.
Solvents. Residual solvent analysis is done to test for residues of chemicals used in the extraction and processing of cannabis products, such as isopropyl alcohol.
Microbiological contaminants. These include E. coli, salmonella, yeast and mold.
Mycotoxins. These are the toxic byproducts of several types of fungus or molds.
Moisture. This is done to check for the presence of mold. The state doesn’t require such testing on marijuana samples, but Hudalla believes eventually it will.
The Ultra Performance Liquid Chromatography (UPLC) machine is used to identify, separate and quantify compounds in liquids, in this case, THC and CBD in liquefied pot. Tables of numbers and graphs that indicate quantities come across a computer screen beside the machine.
“Each one of these peaks relates to certain compounds in the marijuana,” Hudalla said.
Besides testing to determine if a medical marijuana company’s product is harmful, the lab also examines the strength in the samples of the key compounds THC and CBD, he said.
“We need to be able to tell the client how much THC or CBD is in their product, the potency,” he said.
The battery of tests usually takes five business days to complete. It can take three to five days to grow a mold culture, for example, he said. (A culture is the cultivation of bacteria, tissue cells, etc., in an artificial medium containing nutrients.)
Once testing is done, ProVerde sends the client a digital report, he said.
If a contaminant is found, the client in some cases gets a chance to do remediation. The client can go back and take measures to fix the problem in the bulk of the batch of marijuana from which the contaminated tested grams were taken, he said.
“So they have to submit another sample,” he said.
But if pesticides are found, there’s no remediation. The entire batch of marijuana must be destroyed, he said.
The Department of Public Health inspects medical marijuana facilities in visits that are announced and sometimes unannounced. Dispensaries must have policies, product sampling plans and test results available for inspection, said Marybeth McCabe, DPH health communications strategy manager.
If lab tests reveal pesticides, DPH must be notified within 72 hours. A medical marijuana company must submit a proposed plan for the destruction of the contaminated product and an assessment of the source of contamination, she said.
Massachusetts voters in 2012 approved a ballot question to legalize marijuana for medicinal use, 60 percent to 35 percent. Every city and town in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, Berkshire and Worcester counties voted yes.
In 2016, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot question to legalize marijuana for recreational use, over 52 percent to over 45 percent.
Most cities and towns in Hampden County voted yes to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Voting no were Agawam, East Longmeadow, Hampden, Longmeadow, Ludlow, West Springfield and Wilbraham.
Every city and town in Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties voted in favor of the 2016 question.
Worcester County voters approved the 2016 question 52 percent to over 46 percent.
Voters in the town of Milford, where ProVerde Laboratories is located, approved the recreational marijuana ballot question but voted against allowing actual sales of the product in the town.
The stigma about marijuana remains alive and well, Hudalla said.
“It’s weakening but there’s still a lot of ignorance and misperception,” he said.
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Potency and purity: Inside a medical marijuana testing lab (photos, video) Gallery: Testing marijuana for potency and purity at ProVerde Laboratories in Milford MILFORD — The “Ultra