Rules leave pot test labs with little oversight in Oregon

Rules leave pot test labs with little oversight in Oregon
In this April 16, 2014 photo, Pat Marshall, senior chemist and owner of Sunrise Analytical, prepares vials to test medical marijuana at his lab in Wilsonville, Ore. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
SALEM, Ore. (AP) - The Oregon Legislature's vote last year to regulate medical marijuana shops created new business opportunities for another kind of pot enterprise - marijuana testing - but leaves it virtually unregulated.

The state's dispensary law and the rules that implement it require pot stores to register with the state and to test marijuana for contaminants and potency before putting it on their shelves.

But the law doesn't require the labs that run those tests to be licensed or regulated by the state. And no state agency oversees their operations to ensure they actually run the tests they say they do.

"We don't have stories of people being hurt or anything bad happening," said Geoff Sugerman, a medical marijuana consultant who helped draft the state's rules, adding that most of Oregon's pot tests safe.

Even so, some pot advocates and dispensary owners say the law needs to change to better protect patients, dispensaries and even the testing facilities themselves. Members of the testing industry are also concerned that labs using invalid methods could put people at risk and damage the credibility of marijuana testing in general.

For many types of laboratories, government agencies and independent organizations enforce federal or state standards such as personnel qualifications, training requirements, equipment certifications and testing methods.

However, when it comes to medical marijuana testing labs, none of those standards exist. Members of the committee that drafted the state's dispensary rules say they weren't given the authority to create them.

The law requires dispensaries to screen pot for pesticides, mold and fungus to ensure it is safe for patients, many of whom may have compromised immune systems. Dispensary owners must keep a signed lab report on file showing the results, and that's subject to inspection at least once a year. But the state does not monitor the tests or lab procedures. State officials don't even know how many test labs are in the state, because they are not licensed.

House Bill 3460, which legalized dispensaries, "created a compliance system that only applies to dispensaries," said Amy Margolis, a Portland attorney who served on the rules advisory committee. "We were not allowed to regulate testing facilities."

Responsibility for vetting labs falls to individual dispensary owners, but that's an "unfair burden," Margolis said. The rules require dispensaries to ensure the testing facilities follow standards for quality control, but Margolis said it's unfair to expect a "lay person" to determine if a lab is compliant with those standards.

Before the new law gave Oregon dispensaries a legal foundation by putting them under state regulation, many of the shops were already testing their pot to find the levels of compounds such as tetrahydrocannabinol, pot's psychoactive agent known as THC, and cannabidiol, or CBD, which patients say helps relieve inflammation and anxiety. Patients often base their dosage on THC and CBD levels. Now that testing is also required by state rules.

"The important thing is that testing is being done," Sugerman said.

Sugerman said the dispensaries he consults for have done their due diligence to find a reputable testing lab with credentials and instruments that they can trust. The process of creating the dispensary program is "evolving," he said, and may include legislation to regulate testing facilities in the future, but he also believes the industry will move toward setting its own best practices.

But some dispensary owners, experts and state officials worry about the potential impact from no regulation of the testing labs.

Bee Young, owner of the state-licensed dispensary Wickit Weedery in Springfield, said she's seen testing prices jump from $75 before the dispensary rules went into effect in March to $250 since. She said without state certification of labs she's not sure what she's getting for the added cost. She said the lack of oversight creates "a free-for-all" with the dispensary owners alone taking on the risk of accepting test results that could be inaccurate or fraudulent.

Some lab owners are also concerned. They say the lack of regulation creates an opportunity for abuse as new businesses come on-line offering to help dispensary owners meet the new requirements.

"There is a lot of subpar science in this industry," said Patrick Marshall of Sunrise Analytical, a marijuana testing lab in Wilsonville. He said that leads some labs to use inadequate testing practices.

State rules do not specify test methods, said Todd Dalotto, a medical marijuana consultant and member of the rules committee. While some labs are investing thousands of dollars in personnel and hardware to do the testing properly, Dalotto said, others that have "sprouted up" are using cheaper and less reliable methods.

And just having marijuana itself is a potential minefield. The lack of regulation could put testing facilities at legal risk, said Tom Burns, director of pharmacy programs at the Oregon Health Authority, which oversees the dispensary program.

Labs take in small samples, a few grams of pot or pot-infused products for each batch of medicine a dispensary is required to test, but depending on how many samples a lab has on hand at one time, it could be subject to criminal possession charges. Registered dispensaries, growers and patients are protected by Oregon's medical marijuana laws, which allow them to possess certain amounts of cannabis, but the labs are not, Burns said. Some labs could avoid this risk if they are run by growers or patients, or operated inside a dispensary, which the rules allow.

Several rules committee members said they plan to work with legislators to strengthen the regulation of testing facilities in the 2015 legislative session.

"This is certainly a major concern," Margolis said. "It certainly is on a lot of people's minds."