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Oklahoma's Medical Marijuana Safety Relies On Testing

Dan Epstein
A lab technician at Scissortail Labs in Oklahoma City, Okla. works on samples.

State-mandated testing is supposed to protect Oklahoma’s medical marijuana patients from tainted weed. By and large it’s effective, but it’s not perfect. And many question the validity of test results. Independent producer Dan Epstein looked into how testing is supposed to work, and how some orange worms got through.

To be clear, Oklahoma’s medical marijuana is not infested with orange worms. But in November 2019, two members of a Reddit forum did report finding them in marijuana they bought from dispensaries in Oklahoma City. Testing only became a requirement at the beginning of September 2019.

Before then, some growers and dispensaries did test voluntarily.

“We actually had to pay to test all the flower that we purchased from growers before we would put it on our shelves. So obviously a huge amount of risk,” said Corbin Wyatt, founder of Peak Dispensary.

Ten percent of the product Wyatt bought didn’t make it to his shelves. Even so, Wyatt felt testing was necessary.

“I think it’s important to make sure that when you’re selling these things to people that are wanting to use it medically, it’s important to make sure that they’re getting product that is healthy, it’s not infested with things that would potentially harm their health instead of help it,” Wyatt said.

The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority is in charge of quality and safety. Detailed regulations weren’t part of State Question 788. The ballot initiative that made medical marijuana legal was passed in July 2018. It outlined that sales would begin in October 2018, leaving Oklahoma officials to develop rules in just a few months. Detailed regulations weren’t part of the state question. They had to be created by legislation after dispensaries were already up and running. The complexity of those regulations led the agency to roll out the rules in phases.

“We’ve had to do several flights of emergency rulemaking,” said Melissa Miller, assistant director of OMMA. “Because of the extremely rapid timelines that the statutes require us to get things up and running, we haven’t been able to go through a permanent rulemaking process.”

Credit Dan Epstein
Samples on racks await testing at F.A.S.T Laboratories.

In September 2019, product testing became a requirement. Testing would determine a product’s potency. It would also ensure the products are below specific thresholds for certain pesticides, heavy metals, bacteria and fungus, solvents, and general contaminants and filth.

“There is a test, the contaminants and filth test, that’s required as part of OMMA testing standards that requires every sample to be examined under low-power microscopy,” said Ian Cameron, the lab director at cannabis testing business Scissortail Labs.

In the case of the orange worms, Cameron said it’s possible there were eggs in the sample that were just too small to see. Lab techs at Scissortail use a field microscope to check for these kinds of contaminants, but the regulations don’t specify how this or any other required test should be done.

To further complicate the issue for state regulators, Kyle Felling, the lab director at F.A.S.T Labs, said there aren’t any industry testing standards for cannabis either.

“In the water analysis industry there’s a big, thick book called The Standard Methods for Water and Wastewater Analysis,” said Felling. “And there’s a method in there to analyze everything. There’s no big book for cannabis analysis.”

With no industry standard methods, how possible is it that two labs testing samples from the same batch will come up with two different sets of results?

“(It’s) very, very possible,” said Felling. “And even if both labs know exactly what they’re doing, it’s still possible for them to come out different.”

That’s particularly true when it comes to marijuana potency. In a recent experiment, the Oklahoma Gazettehad four labs, including F.A.S.T. and Scissortail, test samples from the same batch for THC. The results differed by up to 5.5 percent. That may not seem like much. However, potency drives price. That means growers may be tempted to pick the best buds in a batch for sampling in order to fetch the highest price. That kind of selective sampling will bias the test results.

Lee Rhoades is the OMMA’s Laboratory Program Oversight Manager. He knows that cannabis is difficult to test, and he’s keenly aware that valid test results require valid samples.

“So, one of the things that we’re working towards is developing a protocol for how to collect a sample so that you get a number you can rely upon,” said Rhoades.

The regulations released in November 2019 say samples must be collected on site, and the person doing the sampling will have to follow the procedures of the lab that performs the tests. The labs could send out their own staff, or they would need to train the growers on their procedures. However, the grower would still be allowed to collect the sample without supervision.

“There’s no oversight,” said Ian Cameron of Scissortail Labs. “I can go down and train a grower on how to take a sample, and they’re going to be like, ‘Yeah, sweet. I’m still gonna pick the best one.’”

Credit Dan Epstein
Equipment used to conduct tests at Scissortail Labs.

Getting truly representative samples and implementing testing standards may not be enough. Lezli Engelking is the founder of FOCUS, the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards. Her organization is trying to establish standards for the cannabis industry. She agrees testing is important but thinks it’s reactive.

“It goes against the basic tenet of quality, which is you can’t test quality into a product, right?” said Engelking. “By the time it’s tested the quality’s either there, or it’s not.”

Engelking has this recommendation for states like Oklahoma.

“Rely less heavily on testing and implement and mandate good manufacturing practices throughout the supply chain,” said Engelking.

If those supply chain practices were implemented, consumers wouldn’t have to rely on testing to find problems only after the product’s made. Oklahoma’s cannabis industry and state regulators are going through the same kind of growing pains other states have experienced, and significant progress must still be made before there is a comprehensive and trusted system that protects everyone.

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