UW Researcher Wants Quality Control Tests for Washington's Medical Marijuana

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Michelle Sexton wants to test Seattle's marijuana supply to make sure it's safe for human consumption. No, that doesn't mean she's planning on hotboxing her research lab at the University of Washington School of Medicine. On the contrary, Sexton is teaming up with the Cannabis Defense Coalition, a Seattle-based advocacy group, in hopes of performing the first clinical analysis of medical marijuana in Washington state.

Sexton says the testing is important to ensure that patients don't unknowingly ingest residual mold or chemicals from plant fertilizer and pesticides with their medication. If someone is suffering from a debilitating condition such as AIDS, which weakens the body's immune system, such impurities could actually end up making them sicker.

What's more, Sexton adds, lab testing would provide an exact breakdown of the active ingredients in each strain of prescription pot. These include not only THC, pot's primary psychoactive compound, but different types of cannabinoids that can affect the drug's potency and may have medicinal properties of their own. Access to such information, she explains, would allow both doctors and patients to maintain a consistent dosage, just as they do with other types of prescription drugs.

"It's not really a new idea," Sexton says. "Botanical medicines have long been explored for their major active compounds, and with the levels of THC increasing overtime in street cannabis, I think it's of concern to many of us who are doctors as to what sort of dosage patients may be getting."

Those words were music to the ears of members of the Cannabis Defense Coaltion (CDC). Late last spring, Sexton gave a talk about pot testing to several CDC members. The group came up with the idea for the Community Cannabinoid Testing Project. Now the CDC is attempting to raise $3,500 in start-up costs via donations.

According to Sexton, the pot analysis can be performed using a variety of methods with mass spectrometry yielding the most precise results. The process requires gram-size samples and would cost in the range of $100 and $200 per test.

The trouble, Sexton says, is that marijuana testing exists in a "legal gray area." She works in a UW lab that investigates the effect of cannabinoids on the brain's immune system, with an eye toward treating diseases like Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis. The lab has a license from the DEA that allows them to work with controlled substances, but Sexton's proposed testing project would not be affiliated with UW, and the legality of accepting nuggets of prescription pot from the state's licensed growers and providers is suspect.

"Everybody is just sort of out there testing the waters," Sexton says. "Nobody that I know of has done it in Washington state, and I wouldn't go forward without consulting a lawyer."

New medical-marijuana legislation introduced earlier this week by state senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles defines medical cannabis by its THC content, but offers no specific legal protection for those who want to analyze the drug.

"The Department of Agriculture is given authority to test for the THC levels," Kohl-Welles spokeswoman Becca Kenna-Schenk writes in an e-mail. "They could use that authority to use outside laboratories. Ultimately, it will be up to the Department to determine who gets to test. The Department may acquire its own equipment and conduct the tests itself, or it may accept certified tests from private labs."

Medical-marijuana testing has already caught on in other states with permissive pot laws. In the Bay Area, a group called the Steep Hill Cannabis Analysis Laboratory has created a "SafeCannabis" program that verifies the purity of retail pot and partners with the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department to inspect the region's legal outdoor grow operations.

In Montana, Dr. Michael Geci says he quit his job as an ER physician to start Montana Botanical Analysis. The company charges licensed dispensaries $100 to analyze each gram-size sample, and he says his business has increased "exponentially" over the past year.

"If you're going to call it a medicine, you have to treat it like medicine," Geci says. "If somebody makes a brownie and they come through our lab, they know it has X amount of THC, CBD (cannabidiol), and CBN (cannabinol). We're able to dose more safely. It gives an element of consumer protection and safety to an industry that desperately needs legitimacy."

Geci says his operation is not specifically protected under Montana law, but when he opened the business he took a proactive approach and contacted a variety of local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies and told them about his work. Still, he admits, "statutorily there's no protection--we're flying on the seat of our pants, hoping that our integrity and our intention of bringing a legitimacy to this industry would give us a semblance of protection."

For Sexton, the hope that police and prosecutors will turn a blind eye to marijuana testing isn't enough protection to get her project with the CDC up and running.

"It's just sort of a travesty we can't analyze it like we do other plants and find out what's going on and find out if there are correlations with different strains and medicinal effects," she says. "It's relatively easy work for somebody who's used to doing it, it's just access to the plant material is forbidden."

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