Hundreds of pounds of Ohio medical marijuana won't make it to dispensary shelves. Here's why.

By Jackie Borchardt for the Cincinnati Enquirer

"You didn’t always know what you were getting. The vast majority of people will not get a test done until they are told to get a test done." - Heather Despres

STREETSBORO, Ohio – North Coast's 5,000-square foot lab looks more like a high school chemistry classroom than a medical marijuana business.

Machines the size of mini-fridges and computer monitors dot lab tables throughout the room. A periodic table hangs on the wall. Employees wear white coats and latex gloves. 

There is no scent of marijuana here.

Well, you can catch a faint whiff of it in one corner of the lab, where a chemist uses tweezers to place tiny marijuana buds into test tubes. Small plates hold small mounds of green powder – finely ground cannabis.

Ohio's medical marijuana program has gotten a late start and ramped up slowly since the first marijuana was harvested last fall and sold in January. Little attention has been paid to the state's three private testing labs, which must operate independently from growers, processors and dispensaries.

The program's least-visible entities may be its most important.

Testing is also one factor in the high price of legal marijuana here. Every batch of dried marijuana flower, marijuana extract and manufactured product must be tested for potency and contaminants such as lead and pesticide residue. 

The Enquirer and Mansfield News Journal recently visited North Coast's 5,000 square foot lab to see how it works. 

Who tests Ohio's marijuana?

House Bill 523, passed in May 2016, required the state to license testing labs to ensure patient safety.

Ohio has three cannabis testing labs in operation:  

  • North Coast Testing Lab in Streetsboro
  • ACT Laboratories in in Toledo
  • Hocking College in Nelsonville

Each pays a $20,000 annual license fee. Two others have been licensed but are not operating out of concern handling a federally illegal substance would jeopardize federal grants and contracts: Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus and Central State University in Wilberforce.

The labs are quasi-regulators. They're the ones who tell the cultivators and processors their product failed and can't be sold.

“We fall in this gray area where we almost enforce things,” Nick Szabo, North Coast lab director, said. “We’re totally in the interest of public health, which is a strange situation for a private corporation to be in.”

North Coast employs about a dozen people at its Portage County lab,and several have advanced degrees in chemistry or other sciences.   

Why is marijuana tested?

No one wants to consume mold, lead and illegal pesticides, but contaminant-free marijuana is even more important for people with severe illness, rare diseases or compromised immune systems.

Ohio's list of 21 qualifying medical marijuana conditions include cancer and HIV.

The other reason for mandatory testing: So consumers know they're getting what they paid for.

Before Colorado mandated testing, there were reports there of marijuana-infused products testing above or below the advertised amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

"You didn’t always know what you were getting," said Heather Despres, director of the Patient Focused Certification Program, which has developed standards for testing and other parts of the industry. "The vast majority of people will not get a test done until they are told to get a test done."

What do they look for?

State regulations require labs to measure the amount of five cannabinoids, or components in marijuana including THC and cannabidiol, or CBD.

Labs run several tests to detect bacteria, mycotoxins from mold, heavy metals, and pesticide and fertilizer residue.

The test results are entered into the state's seed-to-sale database, and the cultivator or manufacturer can view them. If the sample fails to meet state standards for mold it can still be sold as dried flower. If it fails the other tests, it cannot be sold at all and must be destroyed.

The labs test for terpenes – compounds that give marijuana its scent and work with cannabinoids to treat pain and produce other therapeutic effects. More than 200 terpenes have been identified in the plant.

North Coast tests for 19 terpenes, but those results aren't required to be on product labels.

Marijuana extracts and infused products are also tested for byproducts from the extraction process, which can involve butane or carbon dioxide.

How do they test?

Testing lab employees collect samples at each cultivator or processor and drive them back to the lab in armored vehicles.

Samples weighing one-half of 1% of a batch of dried marijuana flowers – as little as 6 grams – are collected in airtight containers, sealed with tamper-resistant tape and stored in airtight boxes. The armored vehicles are temperature and humidity controlled. 

All of this is done to ensure the samples don't become contaminated en route to the lab.

Once in the lab, the samples are prepared for testing under biosafety hoods. Tiny buds are examined under a microscope for visible mold and foreign objects such as human hair. Other buds are ground into a fine powder.

Marijuana-infused gummies are frozen with liquid nitrogen before being pulverized into a powder.

North Coast runs samples through several machines, each costing several hundred thousand dollars. The lab equipment cost about $2 million in total.

One machine tests flower samples for mold and yeast. Szabo said about 9 out of every 10 failed samples fail this test.

In the early weeks of the program, Szabo said, about 10 percent of samples sent to the lab failed for one reason or another. Now, it's closer to 5 percent.

Szabo said growers have used test results to improve their processes and eliminate contamination they might not have known was present. 

Another test finds arsenic, lead and other metals by heating a liquefied sample. Szabo said marijuana has an affinity for metals, often from water drawn up by the plant.

What's the cost?

Testing isn't cheap. North Coast charges between $500 to run the required tests on a medical marijuana product and $665 to run the eight-panel test on dried flower for vaping.

That adds up, especially when cultivators are growing smaller crops of several marijuana strains and processors are fine-tuning new products. 

Manufactured products are tested three times:

  • in flower form, after it's been harvested, dried and cured
  • as an extract from dried cannabis
  • in products such as patches, edibles and lotions

Jonathan Cachat, former director of the lab at Hocking College, said regulators in the Ohio Department of Commerce could pare back the frequency, which would lower costs for patients, and still ensure patient safety. Cultivators and processors perform interim tests, Cachat said, to make sure their extracts and products are uniform.

Cachat also suggested the state change how it tests for mold to a DNA-based test that can detail specific strains found. The test takes about 6 hours compared to the current test's 72 hours. Hocking College and North Coast have machines that can run it.

"Not all molds and yeast are harmful so failing a product for yeast and mold is like using a shotgun when we should be more of a sniper," said Cachat, who now works as a consultant to the industry.

Mark Hamlin, who leads the medical marijuana program within the commerce department, said he's open to discussing changes to testing. But he says changes are premature while the program is still getting established.

"We probably need a little more time operating in this space," Hamlin said in a recent interview. "Our job as a regulated program is first and foremost to ensure the patients who are putting this product in or on their bodies are safe."

Are there enough labs?

Ohio has licensed 30 marijuana cultivators – 16 large and 14 small – and 39 processors. 

State regulators aren't sure three labs will be able to meet the needs of a fully-operational program.

The commerce department plans to open another application window for testing labs and license more by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the agency is testing the testing labs to make sure results are similar. It has assembled a group of lab professionals, including some outside the cannabis industry, to find ways to improve.