Oregon Cannabis is Headed for a Tough Month Because of an Obscure Agency and Strict New Rules

Unless a dozen more labs are magically approved in the next week, you can expect a very different selection on dispensary shelves this fall.

Few people know what the Oregon Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program is, but it's about to have a profound effect on the state's cannabis industry.

On Aug. 26, Gary K. Ward, administrator of the agency, known as ORELAP, sent a memo to industry insiders saying his organization was "on the precipice of collapse." Come Oct. 1, that collapse could cause a bottleneck that results in empty dispensary shelves as massive amounts of freshly harvested, outdoor-grown flower sits in storage. The fallout of that collapse could even extend to the safety of the drinking water at Oregon schools.

Here's the situation: Rules adopted by the Oregon Health Authority state that any cannabis products transferred from producers to shops must be tested through newly approved labs verified by ORELAP. As it stands, only two labs have been approved, and there are thousands of growers funneling their product through them.

ORELAP has only a handful of employees, and recent issues with air contaminants and lead-tainted drinking water in public schools have kept it busy with labs not involving cannabis. The OHA set the Oct. 1 deadline for lab certification, but it didn't give ORELAP more resources. In Ward's memo, first reported by The Oregonian, he said he requested three full-time employees to handle cannabis-testing lab accreditation, and received none.

Accreditation requires the review of hundreds of pages outlining equipment and processes, as well as a thorough inspection of the lab itself. Approved labs will have to be audited in a few months, and those needing improvements will require extra inspections to verify that updates have been made. That means the overall process of approving a lab's setup to analyze potency, mold, pesticides and residual solvents in processed oils can take several weeks.

Add the fact that the OHA is requiring more from certified labs. New sampling requirements multiply the number of tests each grower will have to perform for a single crop. Each strain must have its own set of test results, and a new test for every batch of 10 pounds within that strain.

If you're growing a few wimpy Sour Diesel plants, you'll only need to pay for one test. However, most growers who transfer product to dispensaries have a varied strain menu, meaning multiple tests every harvest, and multiple tests per strain if you've got hearty plants.

Croptober is coming, but while sun-grown cannabis is typically harvested once a year in the fall, indoor grows or greenhouses using light-deprivation techniques can harvest their plants four times a year. The longer it takes labs to do their jobs, the longer pot will be waiting in line to get tested.

Nelson & Company Organics, a longtime medical marijuana farm in the final stages of inspection before recreational approval from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, is concerned about the fast-approaching pileup of untested weed.

"This could push everything forward," says an employee of Nelson & Company. "There are already hundreds of pounds harvested and ready from recreational growers who haven't been able to transfer anything to shops yet. None of that can move until the labs are sorted out."

The delay adds to the wall of challenges facing experienced medical growers making the transition to the recreational market. They've already had to update their growing techniques and security practices. Now, the state is having them sit on harvests while waiting for verification. It's another reason for impatient growers with underground connections to unload their product elsewhere.

On Sept. 9, the state said "it has temporarily assigned three Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality workers to help with pot-lab certification."

Unless a dozen more labs are magically approved in the next week, you can expect a very different selection on dispensary shelves this fall. Your favorite edible brand may be missing from the medical lineup because the next batch is waiting to get through a lab, or it's been redirected to the recreational market. The grower you've favored because of the way she cultivates Cherry Kush could vanish because of new zoning rules, making her grow illegal in that municipality.

Just know it isn't the stoners messing this one up.

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