Cannabis labs seek to serve growers off the road system
New products and strategies are being brought to Alaska to make cannabis testing simpler, but it will take more development before it can match other legal cannabis markets.
Before cultivators can sell any of their products to the retail market, they must first send small product samples to licensed testing facilities to screen for potency and contaminants.
Alaska’s size and population spread, however, combine with federal laws to make sending samples difficult at best and cost prohibitive at worst. Cultivators off the road system — which includes all of Southeast Alaska’s population — cannot fly samples, ship them through federal waters, or send them through the U.S. Postal Service or any private packaging services.
Regulators and industry members are seeking creative solutions to lessen testing transport expenses, potentially by bringing the testing to the product instead of vice versa, through a rare Outside partnership in the Last Frontier.
The Marijuana Control Board hasn’t provided any concrete guidance addressed for rural marijuana supply channels. The firmest has come from Executive Director Cynthia Franklin, who suggested at an April meeting that perhaps sending such small amounts of marijuana through the U.S. mail might not anger the feds, if they even notice.
Then-board chairman Bruce Schulte said shipping is not the board’s focus; the board only wants to know the product was tested, not the particulars of its route to the testers.
Currently, the board has no further solutions for rural communities or plans to implement some kind of lab standards.
“There’s nothing special for anybody off the road,” said Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik, who was elected chair to replace Schulte at a June 9 meeting. “If these labs that are approved can take their testing equipment out and use it remotely then that could be an option, but as far as right now, it’s all the same for everybody.”
The board has some time to sort testing matters in the roughly three-month period a marijuana crop takes to grow to maturity.
“I assume we’ll be talking about that at our July meeting,” said Mlynarik.
In the meantime, testing facilities are finding potential solutions where they can.
Brian Coyle owns AK Greenlabs in Anchorage, one of two testing facilities in the city to be granted a license by the Marijuana Control Board on June 9. AK Greenlabs and CannTest LLC are the state’s lone testing facilities; a third in the Mat-Su Borough dropped out in the face of an upcoming borough ballot initiative that could ban commercial cannabis operations in all unincorporated parts of the borough.
On June 22, Coyle signed a licensing agreement with California-based Steep Hill Labs Inc. to use the company’s testing process.
Steep Hill Labs has been in the testing industry since 2008, operating several labs out of Colorado, California, and Washington. The Oakland-based company has contracted with the Amsterdam Cannabis Cup, one of the world’s premier industry events, and has a contract with Leafly, the cannabis strain database mobile app that tracks potency among other variables.
The company is in the midst of developing Steep Hill Express, a portable testing platform that tests for potency and contaminants but not for pesticides or solvents.
Jmîchaele Keller, Steep Hill’s CEO, like Alaska’s marijuana regulators, recognizes Alaska’s specific challenges for commercial cannabis supply and testing chains.
“Alaska’s really unique because of its topography,” said Keller. “That presents unique challenges in the testing world. The reality is the size of the state is prohibitive both in distance and the amount of investment. Let’s say you want to have a lab in northern Alaska. Labs are very expensive to run. You can’t afford it based on the amount of customers you would have in that area.”
Steep Hill’s equipment relies on near infrared spectroscopy, a less intensive and shorter process than the more common high performance liquid chromatography, or HPLC, used by other labs. Keller insists NIR spectroscopy gives accurate results, pointing to several successful runs in various cannabis competitions.
Coyle even delivered a whitepaper presentation to the Marijuana Control Board in past meetings describing the statistical deviations
Theoretically, a technician with a day’s training could operate the NIR spectroscope and give a potency reports the same day for a nominal fee. If the Marijuana Control Board approved offsite testing affiliated with licensed labs, Coyle could service the entire off road market without the legal problems of transport.
However, Steep Hill would only partially address the problem.
Cultivators will still have to send away for microbial and pesticides testing, though Keller said Steep Hill is developing those technologies as well. Even then, if cultivators off the road system wanted to sell in Southcentral population centers, they would still have to find way to deliver saleable quantities.
Other testing plans fold sample delivery into existing security transport contracts.
Cannabis security firm Valkyrie Security and Asset Protection has drafted a separate deal with Coyle’s AK Greenlabs to offer testing sample transport free of charge to those cultivators already contracted with Valkyrie for product transport.
If already delivering product from Fairbanks cultivation facilities to the Anchorage retail market, Valkyrie will provide testing transport to AK Greenlabs as a bonus while collecting fees from the lab itself.
Coyle’s licensing of Steep Hill testing equipment is related to a larger issue of laboratory standards. Typically, federal bodies oversee testing for consumable products. Because cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, cannabis testing labs have little guidance for proper procedure.
Testing labs in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington developed largely without oversight when each of those states developed their medical marijuana systems.
After recreational sales came online, some labs pressed regulators to have stricter standards for labs to ensure accuracy.
Coyle has advocated a system of testing standards oversight to the Marijuana Control Board, called “proficiency testing” in the industry. This would require independent third party labs to provide their own testing against which licensed marijuana labs can compare their own results.
Steep Hill spearheaded a push for proficiency testing in other cannabis markets.
“All you need to do is look at Washington,” Keller said. “It’s a perfect example of how not to do it. There was no proficiency testing. There’s no random testing. No verification. All the evidence points to they are not doing that in certain labs.”
Steep Hill successfully lobbied the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board to revise regulations. Steep Hill had considered withdrawing from Washington entirely, saying they couldn’t compete in the market with the less scrupulous labs that passed suspicious amounts of product.
A study by Dr. Jim McRae, a research associate at the Center for Study of Cannabis and Social Policy, challenged the Washington labs’ oversight with wide disparities in testing outcomes.
Four of the fourteen labs certified by the state failed to reject a single specimen during a three-month period, while two had rejected 44 percent for microbial contamination. Similarly, five labs didn’t fail a single specimen for residual solvents.
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].