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World’s Strongest Weed? Potency Testing Challenged

By Evan Bush, The Seattle Times (TNS)

SEATTLE — When Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop opened in Seattle, owner Ian Eisenberg said he couldn’t compete with medical dispensaries’ lower prices, but he did have one advantage.

“Ours is tested and you know what you’re getting,” Eisenberg said.

He’s right on the first point. State rules require a small sample tested from every lot of marijuana up to five pounds. But do consumers know what they’re getting? That’s murkier. As the state market develops, so does its testing program.

The program is having success screening substances like yeast, mold and bacteria. About 10 percent of marijuana buds fail tests and can’t be sold in recreational pot stores, according to Liquor Control Board data.

Potency testing, meanwhile, shows Washington’s recreational pot is all over the map. It averages about 16 percent THC, but ranges widely. About 2.5 percent of marijuana tests above 28 percent THC. Some samples climb into the 30s and 40s.

For perspective, High Times reports the “heaviest-hitting strains” at conventions it hosted in 2013 maxed out at 28 percent. In Colorado, scientists at CannLabs said they require a retest for results higher than 27 percent THC.

Does that mean Washington is growing some of the world’s strongest weed?

It could. But some laboratory directors, pot growers and the state Liquor Control Board have reservations about the early data and seek changes to the testing system.

In fact, laboratory leaders said they are forming working groups to lobby the LCB for more oversight of lab methods.

“Part of it is to invite more regulation,” said Brad Douglass, the scientific director at the Werc Shop, one of the 12 labs approved by the state.

Randy Simmons, the state’s marijuana project director, said the system is off to a good start but needs tweaking.

“The majority of what’s out there on the packages is correct,” he said.

He expects changes early this year.

“The lab side is emerging,” Simmons said. “As it matures, I think all those things that have been missed … or things we find out we should be looking for, will all be changed.”

The Werc Shop lab in Bellevue is a simple, white-walled office with a collection of expensive machines that look like fancy printers.

Marijuana samples sealed in sterile plastic bags are separated for several tests, including the state-required microbial and potency tests. Together, the tests cost $150.

For microbial testing, samples are fed into an automatic incubator, which takes up to 56 hours to grow and automatically test for salmonella, mold and other harmful substances.

For a potency test, pot is ground, weighed and placed into a tube with solvent that allows chemical compounds to separate as the tube spins in a centrifuge. Later, plant material is filtered out and the remaining liquid gets injected into a machine that analyzes the cannabinoid compounds.

THC, notably, gets you high. CBD is credited with many of pot’s medicinal benefits.

The Werc Shop’s process relies on automated equipment for testing. It’s built to minimize human error.

Much of that precision, though, is unraveled before samples even arrive, because what growers send might not reflect the overall crop.

“If you’re not careful with sampling, you can have results that vary greatly,” said lab manager Cameron Miller.

But LCB rules don’t direct growers on how to choose samples.

A grower harvesting a crop of 25 plants can select for testing the best-looking bud encased in THC-loaded crystals, rather than a brown one that looks like a hairball.

That’s something the LCB’s Simmons hopes to change.

Retailers often use potency results as a way to advertise the quality of their marijuana. Higher test results can mean higher wholesale prices for growers.

Some producers think others might be falsely boosting test results by adding THC-laden substances to their samples.

“I have suspicions some people are … rolling it in kief and getting high scores,” said Joby Sewell, whose company, AuricAG, grows marijuana in Sodo. (Kief is the powder made from glands that have been sifted or rubbed from the buds and leaves of the marijuana plant.)

Simmons said the LCB also is concerned growers could dip their buds in hash oil before tests.

The agency is beginning a secret-shopping program to find out. Simmons said incognito marijuana enforcement agents will buy products from stores and have them tested. If the results don’t hew closely to the label, the LCB will investigate.

“Will we see people play games? Yes. It happens in any industry out there. Will we catch them? Yes, we will,” said Simmons.

Simmons said marijuana officers are investigating several producers. So far, no violations have been recorded.

Labs also are under scrutiny.

“There are some labs that have financial incentive to game the system for clients,” said the Werc Shop’s Miller.

A fundamental conflict resides at the heart of the testing industry. Producers pay labs for their tests. If producers don’t like the results, they could take their business elsewhere.

“In the medical world … people that do tests sometimes do pay for higher test results,” said Simmons. “I want to make sure that’s not happening on the recreational side.”

The Werc Shop’s Douglass said secret shopping seems premature because labs don’t have to use the same methods to test, though they are expected to conform to herb-industry standards adopted by the LCB.Douglass wants the LCB to send the same sample to several labs, to check for consistency, and help identify labs with equipment or process problems.

Dr. Michelle Sexton, the chief science officer at state-approved PhytaLabs in Kirkland, who helped edit the testing standards adopted by the LCB, said five different lab tests right now likely would yield “five different answers until we go to the next level and get validated methodology.”

That doesn’t mean labs are doing a bad job or fudging results. The expensive equipment The Werc Shop uses is not required. For a microbial test, Douglass said, labs looking for a “shoestring budget” alternative to his automated incubator might use a petri dish to grow bacteria and then manually count colonies with a microscope.

“Whenever humans are involved, there are going to be errors,” said Douglass.

In addition to secret shopping, Simmons said, the LCB is flagging outlying test results and will perform compliance checks on labs.

“You can do a different process,” said Simmons. “If it comes out differently from ours, you can’t use it.”

Independent tests question the numbers reported to the LCB. Jessica Tonani, the CEO of Verda Bio, a Seattle cannabis biotech company, bought pot from recreational stores and had The Werc Shop blind-test them. Seven of eight purchases tested between 3 percent and 7.5 percent different from what their labels showed, according to Tonani’s data.

Small differences can be expected because plant material varies. How much does the LCB allow? Simmons said the agency hasn’t decided yet, but said 1 percent sounded about right.

“I think there are very valid scientists doing testing out there,” said Tonani. “But if your lab is high or low, there’s no data to show your lab is testing correctly.”

Although it’s an imperfect system, don’t discount the idea that Washington could be growing increasingly powerful weed.

“It’s getting stronger all the time,” said the LCB’s Simmons. “People are growing hybrids to increase the THC content.”

Dr. Jonathan Page, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia and founder of a Canadian cannabis biotech company, said it’s possible that “better growing conditions, as would be expected in a legal place, and good genetics are coupling together to push it beyond what we thought is the limit.”

Page pointed to a study of pot seized by police in Australia. More than 200 samples were tested. They averaged about 15 percent THC, similar to Washington. About 7 percent of the Australian pot tested above 28 percent. One sample hit 39.8 percent.

Is high-THC pot better? Not to Page, who sees it as “the Everclear alcohol of the marijuana world.”

Page said early research shows that more than 100 minor cannabinoids (not THC or CBD) play a role in pot’s effects.

“What I’d like to see is that there’s less of a focus on THC as sole molecule, and people saying, ‘I have the most potent bud,’ and more focus on cannabinoid profile” and the overall user experience, said Page.

That might mean more focus on terpenes, which are compounds that create flavor and smell in pot.

Said Douglass: “As consumers become more educated, they’ll be able to sense terpenes in cannabis like a oenophile does with wine.”

Photo: Braden Doane tests a sample at the Werc Shop in Bellevue, Wash.,, one of 12 labs that are approved by the state for microbial and potency testing of recreational marijuana. (Mark Harrison/Seattle Times/TNS)

A Rocky Start For Pot Stores In Washington State

By Evan Bush, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — More than two months after the first state-licensed marijuana stores opened in Washington state, only one is selling pot in Seattle, and it might be weeks before another opens.

Meanwhile, in Bellingham — a city of about 82,000 people — four stores have opened.

What’s the problem here?

Chalk it up to unprepared applicants, difficulties for some entrepreneurs in finding legal locations for their stores and issues with city permitting, among the many problems.

Even Seattle’s first store hasn’t yet been able to bypass the red tape. Cannabis City is lacking permits to legally operate, according to the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD).

And without much marijuana available to sell, potential store owners say there’s little incentive to move quickly.

Many of the delays stem from the state’s retail marijuana lottery. In April, the Liquor Control Board (LCB) held a drawing to determine who could operate Washington’s 334 potential pot shops. The LCB chose 21 applicants at random for Seattle, of the 191 who applied.

The lottery was not merit-based. To qualify, applicants had to show they had the right to property suitable for selling pot under state law, but they did not have to prove their financial means or business capabilities.

In some cases, lottery winners either weren’t interested or capable of opening a store, Liquor Board spokesman Mikhail Carpenter said. “They’re not doing anything,” he said.

Killy Nichelin, whose company Iconic Cannabis received the 53rd spot in the lottery, said some winners looked to profit from their license alone, which they viewed as “golden tickets” to barter. Before the lottery, Iconic Cannabis leased and began to remodel a property in Ballard. When Nichelin’s company was not drawn, he sent an email to all the lottery winners seeking a partnership. Seven winners contacted him. They wanted his company’s location, knowledge and business plan. Some asked for money.

“These people are insane,” he said. “They got a lottery ticket, they didn’t prepare at all, and they thought they ruled the world.”

Nichelin said some of the people who wanted to partner didn’t appear to have the financial means to operate, nor did they have access to a good location. He wasn’t willing to give up prime, legal real estate to people he felt shouldn’t have been in the lottery in the first place.

“If we were to give up the building…we just handed someone a turnkey property,” he said. To afford rent on their location, Nichelin and his business partners opened a low-volume medical dispensary. They still hope to get a state license.

So far, the LCB has disqualified five Seattle lottery winners and begun to review some ranked higher than 21. The LCB this week also is sending letters to dozens of lottery winners, giving them 60 days to make significant progress toward their license or have their applications withdrawn, said Randy Simmons, the state’s marijuana project director.

Although he received the 25th lottery position, applicant Bob Ramstad said his company, Paradoxical, received a letter from the LCB in August. His application was being reviewed.

It was a surprise. Ramstad had secured property before the lottery but relinquished it when he wasn’t selected. He had to start his search anew.

Finding real estate has been difficult. Ramstad said he pored over 800 lease listings in Seattle and found just 20 that would be legal and suitable for a retail business. About half of those would require him to change the property’s allowable use to retail, which can take weeks. Ramstad said that once he signs a lease, he’ll be two months away from opening but said some landlords haven’t been willing to work with him for fear of a federal crackdown on pot businesses.

The city’s more than 400 parks, 97 public schools and about 200 child-care centers presented challenges for applicants, who are not allowed to be within 1,000 feet of them.

Trichome & Calyx’s Mehran Rafizadeh, for example, drew Seattle’s top lottery number, but his application is on hold as he and the LCB determine whether he chose a valid location.

Rafizadeh says a child-care facility opened within 1,000 feet of his location after his application was submitted.

Until a judge rules on his case, Rafizadeh doesn’t know if he can proceed where he is, be allowed to move or have his application denied altogether. He has a hearing scheduled for next month.

Two Seattle stores are scheduled for final inspections by the LCB.

One of those applicants, Oltion Hyseni, said the LCB will visit his 1960s-themed shop this week. If Ocean Greens passes, Hyseni said, that puts him on track to get his license and open the store by the end of the month.

For lottery winners who did lock down a legal location, complying with Seattle’s building and land-use code has been another hurdle.

Seth Sligar won the 12th lottery spot with his company, Bud Bouquets. Sligar said the LCB has approved his application pending a final inspection, but he’s still waiting to build out his storefront.

“I can’t swing a hammer until DPD tells me I can,” said Sligar, referring to the city’s Department of Planning and Development. There’s tons of building going on in Seattle right now. They’ll get to us when they get to us.”

Acquiring a permit to renovate a space or change its use can take six weeks to five months, said Bryan Stevens, a spokesman for DPD. Stevens said older buildings often require safety additions or seismic upgrades.

If the process takes so much time, how was Cannabis City ready to open July 8, more than two months before any other Seattle shop? It didn’t wait for the DPD, and instead filed for a change of use after opening.

That approach comes with risks. In June, the city sued its first pot producer for operating in violation of its building code.

If Cannabis City were not addressing its permit problems, Seattle could choose to take similar action.

“The space is technically not legal,” Stevens said. “However, we will allow a business to be used or remain open if they show progress to obtain a permit.”

Cannabis City owner James Lathrop said he didn’t know he needed a permit. “I took the space the way it was, and I opened it,” he said. “It’s just paperwork to move it from office to retail. It’s all in process.”

Stevens said as long as Lathrop continues on his path to compliance, he won’t be fined, but it could still be costly.

“When you’re asking for forgiveness rather than permission there’s a huge risk there,” Stevens said. “You may have to make physical changes to the space, safety changes. That can add some cost to the project.”

If any potential store owners are waiting for supply to stabilize, that could happen soon, said LCB spokesman Carpenter. Many of the state’s outdoor growers will harvest their first crop later this month or early next.

Lathrop said that if Cannabis City weren’t already operating, he would be in no rush to open his store’s doors. “There’s no supply,” he said.

Store manager Amber McGowan said pot producers are charging high prices, which has strained the retail business.

“It’s not yet really profitable,” she said. “We’re able to pay our bills and pay our staff. We have just enough money to turn around and buy product.”

Photo: Business partners Miles Thomas, left, and Killy Nichelin, right, recently opened a medical marijuana store in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle after losing the state’s pot lottery. Meanwhile, the state has only licensed one marijuana store in Seattle. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times/MCT)

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Edible Marijuana Products Slow To Arrive, As Regulators Exercise Caution

By Evan Bush, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Marijuana-infused edibles began trickling to store shelves in Washington state last month, and the sweets, snacks, and drinks offer a glimpse of a diverse and maturing marketplace on the horizon — one rife with concerns for consumers and regulators.

Statewide pot-supply shortages slowed the edibles’ arrival, but manufacturers also were stifled, and frustrated, by emergency regulations from the state Liquor Control Board (LCB), which has taken a cautious approach to opening the marketplace.

So far, the LCB has given its blessing to products — including chocolate bars, sodas, and energy shots — from three new businesses.

Nine more kitchens have been approved by the Washington Department of Agriculture, but the LCB hasn’t yet signed off on their products.

Although eager entrepreneurs have bemoaned the LCB’s pace, Washington has benefited from watching Colorado deal with unexpected concerns and high demand for edibles. It also avoided national scrutiny after media seized on cautionary tales about edibles. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd visited Colorado, ate marijuana candy, and wrote that it left her in an eight-hour “hallucinatory state” in which she was “panting and paranoid.”

The stories pushed regulators in both Colorado and Washington to tighten the market, put an emphasis on education and, in many ways, protect consumers from themselves.

Making edibles a commercial scale requires a touch of science and a dash of culinary skill.

With the state’s pot supply limited, edibles processors do have one advantage: They can use other pot growers’ trim, or waste clippings, as the base to make THC-laden oil or cooking fat.

“You can get a high-quality perceived product from essentially scraps,” said Jim Chaney, who has been making edibles for medical patients since 2011.

From there, processors can be creative. Take, for example, the first three to have edibles approved:

— After furtive discussions around their family’s Thanksgiving table in 2012, Patrick, Dan, and Michael Devlin started Db3. The brothers’ company became the state’s first licensed edibles processor. In January, they started setting up shop in a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in the SoDo neighborhood.

The brothers will soon launch Zoots, their line of marijuana-infused drops and candies.

Industrial food-processing machines will churn out three products initially: drink additives that combine THC with substances like green coffee-bean extract or camomile; energy shots that have a similar appearance to 5-Hour Energy drinks; and “chili cinnamon fire” candies packaged in what looks like an Altoids tin.

The Devlins converted their warehouse, which had been processing chicken salad, into an edibles assembly line and spent months developing their products, then testing them with focus groups. By the end of the month, they expect to have 24 employees.

They see Zoots as a future “signature Seattle brand.”

“From a business perspective, this is a very large market without a brand,” Dan Devlin said.

— An hour north near Granite Falls, Green Chiefs has a former horse barn with a kitchen, a $125,000 carbon-dioxide processor named “Leviathan,” and about 2,700 pot plants inside.

With walls constructed of corrugated metal lining the barn’s frame, Green Chiefs built a commercial kitchen to produce such snacks as Parmesan garlic pita chips and peanut brittle.

Instead of convening focus groups, Green Chiefs pushed out small batches of confectionery items like truffles and brownie brittle and is tracking sales and price margins, said Demetri Huffman, a consultant with the company.

Although state-licensed retail stores priced their high-potency chocolate bars with about 55 milligrams of THC between $70 to $100, Huffman said Green Chiefs did not profit from its first batch, which also included other kinds of edibles, because trim was expensive and their kitchen processes were not yet streamlined.

— In Longview, in Southwest Washington, Mirth Provisions hopes its cannabis-infused sodas can compete with “a nice 22-ounce beer or a glass of pinot noir.” Founder Adam Stites said the company “can push about 8,000 bottles a day.” Soon, Stites hopes to bring cold-brew cannabis coffee to shelves.

For now, though, Mirth Provisions offers three soda flavors. Rainier Cherry, infused with a sativa strain, contains about 20 milligrams of THC.

Stites said he decided to pursue pot-infused beverages because he believes they’ll have a bigger consumer base than traditional bud.

“Regardless of what socioeconomic group you’re in, drinking is a socially acceptable way to recreate,” said Stites. “We said, why not make it a single serving for when you’re out barbecuing?”

All three companies project a wide base for their market, something an initial study of Colorado’s market seems to support.

“(Edibles have) been a lot more popular than we thought this year,” said Adam Orens of BBC Research, who helped research the market for the state. “It has that appeal for casual users — an easy way to consume marijuana.”

In Colorado, the researchers estimated, tourists account for about 44 percent of recreational marijuana sales in metro areas, and about 90 percent in heavily visited mountain communities.
Novice pot users having bad experiences with Colorado edibles piqued Washington regulators’ attention in the process.

In June, Dowd wrote about her experience with edibles, and the story went viral. Three months earlier, a 19-year-old Wyoming student had jumped from a balcony and died after eating more than six times the recommended serving of marijuana cookies.

In response, regulators and industry leaders in both states imposed restrictions on the edibles marketplace and put new emphasis on education.

Most concerns stem from the newly pot-curious eating too much too fast because they don’t know better, said Meg Collins, executive director of Colorado’s Cannabis Business Alliance.

“Edibles seem like an easy, friendly way to get into marijuana,” Collins said. “It may taste like a yummy chocolate, but it’s still a drug and you need to be careful.”

Unlike smoking or vaping marijuana, eating pot can affect people quite differently and can produce a delayed high that kicks in hours later.

Although Washington’s law was more restrictive than Colorado’s, that state’s struggles brought new attention. In June, the Washington LCB released emergency rules to tighten its control over the edibles market.

“There were reports coming out of Colorado that edibles were more tricky,” said Brian Smith, an LCB spokesman. “We had already established serving sizes and limits. We wanted to take it a step further.”

The rules require products be scored and labeled to indicate serving sizes, and homogenized so psychoactive chemicals are dispersed evenly throughout the products.

The LCB also restricted how manufacturers could preserve products. The rules don’t allow dairy products or anything that requires heating or cooling, among other constraints.

“We’re trying to keep this relatively young industry more on the side of safety with inherently low-risk products,” said Steve Fuller, a policy analyst for the state agriculture department. Some of those regulations might loosen in the future.

The LCB’s rules also allow it to reject any product or packaging it thinks would appeal to children. That means no gummy bears or cartoon animals.

AFP Photo/Desiree Martin

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