Testing Flower Power

New state rules haven't settled the debate over the testing of legal pot for safety and how fast it will get you high.

Peters, president of Eco Firma Farms, knows that sending samples of his pot to a lab ensures the plant isn't riddled with mold or drenched in pesticides. And he's happy to have his strains tested for potency so consumers will have some idea how powerful a high they're purchasing. 

But Peters says the state's testing rules are costing him money—without giving users any of that information. 

"It is a huge disaster," he says. "I'm a proponent of testing. But it's getting perverted by those who are looking for profit rather than results."

Testing marijuana under Oregon's emerging regime of legal pot sales should be all about protecting consumers.

Setting up procedures for testing the freshness of weed and the power of its buzz is a balancing act between protecting public health and keeping the price low enough to compete with the black market.

It also exposes the tensions between the different groups looking to cash in on Oregon's legal pot.

At the heart of Peters' gripe: The Oregon Health Authority, which oversees medical marijuana, just toughened the requirements for dispensaries and growers to test and label the weed they sell, while failing to set any standards for the labs that measure its safety and strength. 

The need for the state to fix the problem is urgent, because Oregon's medical marijuana testing rules are widely seen as a trial run for the recreational weed market created by voters in November. 

Lab operators agree. "We have a laboratory market that's wholly unregulated," says Rowshan Reordan, who runs Green Leaf Lab in Northeast Portland. "We don't have standards for what a batch size is, or sampling methods, or chain of custody. We would love to have oversight."

The science of testing marijuana is complex, but the goal is simple. OHA requires that weed sent to medical dispensaries is first tested for mold and pesticides, and then measured for levels of THC and CBD, the two most active intoxicants in the plant. 

But THC and CBD levels vary. For example, the higher on a plant a bud sprouts (and the more light it gets while growing), the higher you'll feel when you smoke it.

Users who want to moderate their THC and CBD intake have only lab results to rely on.

"It's like handing somebody who wants a glass of wine a glass of 151 [-proof rum], but they can’t taste the difference,” Peters says. 

That can create incentive for labs to test only the top flowers of a pot plant because stronger potency can mean more money per gram.

"If everybody's price is the same, but this one lab gives me 10 percent higher tests, it's a selling point," says Norris Monson, a Portland grower who operates Nug Run Enterprises. "I don't know if I would quite call it profiteering, but it is a way to gain a competitive edge in a tight market."

More than 20 labs currently operate in Oregon, most charging $100 to $200 a test. State rules don't say which part of a plant they have to test, how large the sample should be, or how many pounds of pot a grower can sell to a dispensary after getting a sample tested. 

OHA's new rules require pot to be sealed—such as in a plastic bag—between testing and retail sales. The rule change has growers livid.  “It’s a system that’s going to increase mold,” Peters says.

Growers say the new rules will increase their costs. Lab operators say growers are exaggerating the financial hardship of paying for tests. 

"We charge $100 a test," Reordan says. "And right now there's no batch limit, so someone can submit a test and it can represent an unlimited quantity. It's extremely affordable for public safety."

Portland lawyer Paul Loney helped write Measure 91, which legalized weed in Oregon. He's married to Reordan, but many of his clients are growers.

"Everybody in this industry is facing sticker shock," Loney says. "Everybody wants to blame everybody else for the costs going up."

OHA spokesman Jonathan Modie says the state's medical marijuana law doesn't give the agency authority to regulate labs. That means the task of fixing the medical marijuana testing system—and creating one for recreational sales—falls to the Oregon Legislature.

State Sen. Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) and Rep. Ann Lininger (D-Lake Oswego) are co-chairwomen of the "Joint Committee," the House-Senate panel that will review major marijuana legislation this year. Both toured Green Leaf Lab last week, and both say they want state oversight of labs.

"I think the growers have a point: The lack of standards in laboratory testing makes it difficult to justify the expenditures that they're making," Burdick says. "I know it's the Wild West out there. Obviously, this is an area where we have to direct our attention.”