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January 29th, 2014 MATTHEW SINGER | News Stories
 

Weed Science

Sunrise Analytical is breaking down marijuana to build better medicine.

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Ethan Marshall figures he’s one of the only people in Oregon allowed to handle both money and weed in the same transaction.

His official title at Sunrise Analytical, the Portland medical-marijuana testing facility he operates with his chemist father, Pat, is “sales representative.” But Marshall, a 23-year-old with shaggy brown hair and the vague idea of a goatee, says his main responsibility is to “keep everybody happy.” Indeed, when patrons are essentially paying you to take their pot away, customer satisfaction is crucial.

Depending on the desired depth of analysis, Oregon Medical Marijuana Program cardholders shell out up to $110 per sample for Sunrise to tell them what, exactly, is in their medicine. It’s a mutually beneficial business model: patients learn what they’re ingesting, growers get data to help them produce better product, and the Marshalls further their research into the chemistry of cannabis—a study which, in the next few years, could vastly improve how marijuana is used to treat those same patients.

Out of its nondescript office-cum-laboratory in Wilsonville, Sunrise has, in five years, broken down the chemical components of more than 350 strains of weed, from Alien Dawg to Tangerine Kush, identifying and graphing the various monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes responsible for taste and smell, and the cannabinoids regulating their psychotropic and medicinal effects. Sunrise claims its data is the most thorough and sophisticated in the state, if not the country. So far, the biggest discovery is that cannabidiol (CBD), the compound thought to be the key to marijuana’s therapeutic qualities, appears in far less abundance than initially presumed. The implications of that are indeterminate, “but it’s got to be important,” Marshall says.

Pat Marshall knows where he hopes such information eventually leads: to a better, broader understanding of how pot treats different ailments. “If we can provide the information, maybe someday someone goes, ‘If your marijuana contains Cannabi-six, that’s what we want for epilepsy,’” says the elder Marshall, a University of Oregon alum with 25 years of experience in the environmental industry. “All your epilepsy patients should be looking for this compound and not going, ‘All medical marijuana works.’” 

Testing labs have existed nearly as long as medical-marijuana laws, but quality control is where Sunrise separates itself. It begins with methodology: the Marshalls’ is one the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has used for 40 years. A sample is ground down until all that remains is sheer plant fiber, then fed through a gas chromatograph, a machine resembling a hybrid mini-fridge and industrial copier, to separate the compounds, and a mass spectrometer to identify pesticides. The information is fed into a computer program that Pat can read “like it was a book or Braille or something,” according to his son. They’ve called other labs to compare notes and inquire about their testing methods, only to be told the information is “proprietary.”

“Ours is out there for 40 years. Yours is proprietary?” Pat says. “No wonder you can’t achieve reasonable results.”

That stonewalling, they say, is part of what’s made connecting the dots take much longer than desired. If other labs would willingly share their findings—and, more to the point, get their shit together—it would help Sunrise reach definitive conclusions much faster. But then, the science of marijuana is so new, it might not even matter.

“Every six months or so we discover something new that could near nullify our research all the way up to that point,” Ethan says. “Mind you, it’s great because we’re making these breakthrough discoveries. But it leaves us up in the air.”

 
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