Connor Hellings, left and science director John Rudd, right, work on marijuana samples at CannTest, the first commercial marijuana testing laboratory to open in Alaska on Monday, Oct. 24, 2016, in Anchorage, Alaska. (Dan Joling, Associated Press file)

What changes are coming to how California tests medical marijuana?

The draft rules drew mixed reactions from industry professionals who are anxious to finally have uniform guidelines but believe the state included unnecessary testing that will drive up the price of cannabis

The Bureau of Marijuana Control on Friday released a plan to make cannabis safer for patients, with rules for all medical marijuana legally sold in the state to be independently lab tested starting next year.

The 46 pages of regulations lay out everything from what clothing lab technicians can wear when collecting cannabis samples to what level of pesticides marijuana can contain.

The draft rules drew mixed reactions from industry professionals who are anxious to finally have uniform guidelines but believe the state included unnecessary testing that will drive up the price of cannabis.

“Like with any regulations, I think there’s still tons of work to do,” said Robert Martin, executive director of the Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories.

Martin, who runs CW Analytical lab in Oakland, said state officials visited his facility and really listened as his association members weighed in on issues such as pesticides and how to handle the plant material.

But he was disappointed to see that the proposed regulations mandate measuring heavy metals and aflatoxins, which are cancer-causing chemicals produced by certain molds.

“We’re over-testing the products,” he said.

A study by UC Davis scientists earlier this year found samples from 20 unidentified Northern California marijuana dispensaries contained bacterial and fungal pathogens that may cause serious and even fatal infections if smoked or vaped by people with impaired immune systems.

But Martin said he has 10,000 data samples showing there’s no evidence of aflatoxins in cannabis anywhere in North America.

“I think it’s going to take some real science to change opinions,” he said.

If the rules stick as proposed, Martin said labs like his will have to buy pricey new equipment to measure for heavy metals. And he said that will drive up both the cost and turnaround time for test results.

The testing regulations are part of a larger plan to finally rein in the state’s unruly cannabis industry, as California marks 20 years since medical marijuana became legal and nearly six months since residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana.

Medical marijuana regulations were mandated by a a trio of bills known as the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act, which became law in 2015.

The Bureau of Marijuana Control (formerly the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation) was created by that act and charged with establishing and enforcing rules for cannabis retailers, distributors, transporters and testers.

On April 28, the bureau released a 58-page document with draft regulations for the first three segments of the market. Those rules would limit dispensary operating hours, dictate security plans for each shop, cap how many ounces of cannabis patients could buy each day and more.

The same day, the Department of Public Health published detailed rules for cannabis manufacturers. And the Department of Food and Agriculture released proposed rules for cultivators.

The bureau’s new draft regulations for testing are 46 pages long.

The testing regulations were the most challenging to develop, Lori Ajax, chief of the state’s marijuana bureau, said during a presentation Friday evening at UC Irvine.

Here are some key details in the proposed rules released Friday:

  • Labs will have to test for homogeneity; the presence or absence of various analytes, including cannabinoids, residual solvents, micro-organisms, pesticides, heavy metals, and mycotoxins; water activity and moisture content; and filth and foreign material.
  • Labs can also test for terpenes.
  • They must report in milligrams the concentration of THC, THCA, CBD, CBDA, CBG and CBN. Samples “pass” if they don’t vary from the stated THC or CBD levels by more than 15 percent.
  • Labs must report whether samples have more than allowed amounts of pesticides such as acephate, residual solvents such as butane, impurities such as Salmonella, heavy metals such as arsenic, mold that averages 5 percent of the sample by weight and more.
  • To get a full annual license, labs will need to be accredited by the International Organization for Standardization. But the state will offer 180-day provisional licenses to labs that meet all other qualifications while they work on their ISO accreditation.
  • Lab techs have to wear safety goggles, hair nets and other sanitary gear plus use sanitized tools when collecting samples for testing.
  • Labs have to collect 0.5 percent of the total cannabis batch for testing. Batches must be under 10 pounds.
  • Labs have to maintain detailed plans for chain of custody for samples, employee training, storage and more. And they have to make those plans available to the bureau if asked.

All of the draft medical marijuana regulations — which now total 257 pages — are open for public comment.

The state plans to take feedback in writing and through a series of public hearings over the next several weeks before getting a final set of rules in place in time to start issuing licenses to testing labs, cultivators, retailers and all other cannabis businesses by Jan. 1, 2018.

“We want to hear from you,” Ajax said. “We’re OK with you not agreeing with us. … Tell us what we did wrong and then tell us how we can make it better.”

Martin said his association plans to take advantage of that public comment period to present the bureau with solid science that he hopes will shape the final regulations into something that’s more logical and fiscally sound.

California expects to release draft regulations this fall for the recreational cannabis industry, created when voters passed Proposition 64 on Nov. 8. Those rules must also be in place by the start of the new year.

Meanwhile, the legislature is grappling with how to rectify differences between the medical and recreational marijuana laws.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s office pitched its plan for reconciling the two systems in a 92-page budget trailer bill released in April. He largely recommends that California go with the more market-friendly plans included in voter-approved Prop. 64.

Lawmakers are holding hearings on that plan. And the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office on Thursday published an overview that praises parts of Brown’s proposal — such as allowing vertical integration — while urging caution on his recommendations to not start reporting on key aspects of the industry until 2023 and to limit the number of medium-sized farms allowed in the state.

If that budget trailer bill passes, the bureau said it will withdraw all of its proposed regulations and propose a new set that’s consistent with any changes in the law.


Get involved

The public can submit written comments on the draft testing regulations for the next 45 days. They can also attend public hearings that will be held throughout the state in coming weeks.

  • 1 to 3 p.m. June 1 at the Adorni Center, 1011 Waterfront Drive in Eureka
  • 1 to 3 p.m. June 8 in the Junipero Serra Building at 320 W. Fourth Street, Los Angeles
  • 4 to 6 p.m. June 13 in the King Library at 150 E. San Fernando Street in San Jose
  • 10 a.m. to noon June 20 in the Department of Consumer Affairs hearing room S-102 at 1625 North Market Boulevard, Sacramento

 

This story was first published on TheCannifornian.com