Test Before You Toke
Entrepreneurial labs examine medical marijuana for potency and impurities.
When Michigan voters approved the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act (MMMA) through a 2008 voter-initiated ballot proposal, they authorized the use of marijuana for certain medical conditions. Today, 192,120 Michigan residents hold a medical marijuana card, according to Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.
The MMMA opened doors for new products as well as businesses engaged in various aspects of medical marijuana use. However, many involved in the medical marijuana industry, as well as state legislators and law enforcement personnel, believe the law’s lack of specifics has led to legal ambiguity. There is uncertainty about which marijuana products are legal and how they can be legally acquired by medical marijuana patients.
With a state-issued medical marijuana certificate, patients can grow up to 12 marijuana plants for individual use or designate a caregiver to grow marijuana on their behalf. Caregivers can grow 12 marijuana plants per patient on behalf of five patients. However, cultivating marijuana is not an easy crop. Experts say that marijuana is a sensitive plant that requires careful nurturing for medicinal use.
“It is a plant that has to be grown under proper conditions to avoid mold or any fungus that could be detrimental for some medical conditions,” says Nina Robb, M.D., a physician who works at Greenlite Clinic in Troy, which examines patients seeking state certification for medical marijuana use.
In addition, many types of marijuana exist, and even plants within the same strain may contain varying strengths of the two main components cited for their medicinal benefit — cannabinoids (CBDs) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Market for Testing
Around the state, business people and medical marijuana users quickly saw the potential for laboratories to test marijuana buds and marijuana products being used by patients. Michigan is one of 23 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that have legalized medical marijuana; almost all require testing for impurities and potency prior to distribution or sale. Michigan does not.
“I sensed it was an opportunity to be in a burgeoning industry, and I saw what was happening in states like Colorado where there was a need to test products,” says Robert Teitel of Orchard Lake, founding partner and vice president of Iron Laboratories.
In 2011, he approached Howard Lutz of Birmingham, who he had known for years, and they established a medical marijuana testing firm in Walled Lake — one of the first in the state — with Lutz as president and CEO. Michael Goldman of Bloomfield Hills joined the firm soon after as COO. All three have business backgrounds, although not in pharmaceuticals.
Teitel belongs to the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue and Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township. Goldman is affiliated with Temple Israel in West Bloomfield and the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces-Michigan Chapter.
Iron Laboratories has 11 employees in Michigan, including six full-time scientists, one of whom is Mack Lutz, a biochemist and Lutz’s son. They conduct a range of tests, including several types of chromatography. Specialized equipment measures the amounts of THC, CBD and other compounds in marijuana flowers as well as in edible and topical products provided by clients. Other tests assess the use of pesticides and the extent and type of solvents used to remove cannabinoids (CBDs) — a key component for medicinal benefits. In addition, high-powered microscopes identify mold, pests and impurities.
Testing labs typically require a 1.5-gram sample for marijuana flowers, 1.5 grams of an infused produce and a full serving of an edible, such as a candy or cookie. Each sample is placed in a solution for testing and remainders are disposed of afterward.
Teitel says they photograph contaminants in samples so clients can see them. “There is some type of mold on 25 percent of samples and it may be harmful to some,” Teitel says. “It’s critical that medical marijuana patients have safe marijuana.”
Dr. Robb says that a patient who is immuno-comprised or otherwise seriously ill faces a risk of lung infection that could spread to the blood stream from a marijuana product with mold. She says that more research is needed concerning safe levels of marijuana components.
The city of Detroit recently implemented a new ordinance that regulates licensing and location of medical marijuana dispensaries that includes a ban on marijuana products made with “butane hash oil,” which is used in creating some edible marijuana products. According to Matt Abel, executive director of Michigan’s chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML), butane is used as a solvent to create some edibles but is not present after production.
Because there are no state standards for medical marijuana strength or purity, those who use testing labs are left to interpret test results themselves.
However, Iron Laboratories follows ISO/IEC 17025:2005 certified testing protocols that meet the standards of the International Organization of Standardization.
“We are setting a benchmark that doesn’t exist,” Lutz says.
According to Teitel, the company has doubled its sales every year and has 1,500 clients in Michigan. Last October, Iron Labs opened a testing lab in Oregon, where both recreational and medical marijuana are legal.
Iron Laboratories provides detailed test results, posted online, within 24-48 hours. Prices for individual tests range from $50 to $210 for a complex analysis, but an annual membership provides discounts. Clients must present a state medical marijuana certificate.
Patients, caregivers, dispensaries and collectives use medical marijuana testing labs. Dispensaries and collectives typically sell marijuana products, some created from patients’ and caregivers’ excess plant material, to individuals with state medical marijuana certificates. Robb recommends lab testing to Greenlite Clinic patients, especially for those who use dispensaries to obtain their marijuana. However, dispensaries and other “provisioners,” as they are sometimes called, operate in a gray area legally. Some municipalities, including many in Oakland County, ban dispensaries and other entities that sell marijuana.
Keith, a former journeyman tool and die maker who lives in Southeastern Michigan, developed Lyme Disease in 2013 and turned to marijuana after debilitating weight loss. By working with a dispensary that has its products tested by Iron Laboratories, he says he avoided bugs, mold and pesticides, and was able to “dial in” on an appropriate strength of marijuana. “Every strain is different and every crop can be different,” he says, adding that marijuana changed his life.
Jonah Copi runs the Ann Arbor Wellness Collective, a nonprofit organization that has been a medical marijuana provider for six years. “We have a good relationship with Iron Laboratories. They test every batch to verify the product is clean and consistent. All the products we provide are brought to us by caregivers,” Copi says.
For PSI Laboratories, founded and owned by Benjamin Rosman and Lev Spivak-Birndorf, Ph.D., marijuana testing has a personal impact as they both have medical marijuana certificates. Rosman has epilepsy and, with marijuana, he has reduced his use of conventional medications. Spivak-Birndorf has Crohn’s disease and has been able to eliminate drug use with medical marijuana. Both Crohn’s and epilepsy are qualifying conditions for medical marijuana certification in Michigan.
Rosman and Spivak-Birndorf have been friends since their childhoods in Birmingham; both now live in Ann Arbor. Before starting PSI Laboratories, Rosman worked as a lawyer handling medical marijuana cases and thought a lot more could be done for medical marijuana patients to make it safer and more effective. Spivak-Birndorf, a scientist with a Ph.D. in geo-chemistry, attributes his interest in marijuana testing to his previous involvement in analytical chemistry and a desire to try something different.
Rosman says that their Ann Arbor company has experienced “steady growth with new clients all the time.”
“People are asking for this,” he says. “Medical marijuana users don’t know what they have.”
PSI Laboratories offers a menu of tests on small samples of marijuana plants and products, including a plate count for mold. (A sample is placed on a surface conducive to mold to see how much, if any, develops.) Testing fees are usually $35 to $45 per sample.
Clients include provisioners, growers and dispensaries that often seek analysis of marijuana concentrates and edibles, including chocolate candies, muffins, butter, brownies and oils, Rosman explains.
“We help them work on their method until they get it right,” he says. “Edibles are good for people who don’t want to smoke or can’t smoke. We work with some of the most sophisticated clients and with people who want to double-check the results of other labs.”
Dr. Robb agrees that edibles can be advantageous because smoking isn’t advisable for many patients. However, she says she can’t advise people to use them because of their questionable legality.
Lack Of Regulation
“The law is incomplete,” says State Rep. Mike Callton (R-87th District). Callton, a chiropractor who grew up in West Bloomfield, is the only Jewish resident in Nashville, Mich., where he lives and works when not in Lansing. Based on his contacts, he believes that medical marijuana is an effective treatment for appetite enhancement, seizures in children and for pain.
“It’s better than a narcotic analgesic and can reduce opioid deaths,” Callton says. Some patients may experience a placebo effect but “if they think marijuana helps, then they may not need that heavy stuff.”
Callton co-sponsored House Bill 4209 that would license marijuana growers, testers, processors and retailers.
“Marijuana requires testing and labs are important if medical marijuana is going to be a valid therapy,” he says. The bill was approved by the Michigan House Judiciary Committee and is stalled in the Senate. According to Callton, a companion bill favored by law enforcement would establish a tracking system for marijuana “from seed to sale.”
Abel suggests the labs — about a handful in Michigan — work together to set standards in the absence of state regulation. “Testing is really important to know that we don’t have adulterants — butane, mold, dog hair — and [knowing the] strength is important,” he says.
The owners of Iron Laboratories and PSI Labs also favor mandatory testing. “It’s a public safety issue and legislators refuse to regulate the industry,” Teitel says.
Robb, whose patients typically return for follow-up visits after their certification, is not aware of any major adverse medical reactions to medical marijuana. However, she recommends lab testing to all patients.
The legislature’s inaction is due to risk avoidance, observers say, because some public officials view marijuana as too controversial to support.
By Shari S. Cohen | Contributing Writer
The Michigan Medical Marijuana Certification Process
Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regular Affairs is responsible for issuing certificates. Information and forms for patients and caregivers are available at Michigan.gov/mmp. Patients must submit required forms from a licensed Michigan physician who documents that the patient’s medical condition or symptoms correspond to one of the approved 13 diseases and conditions. Certificates last two years, and fees are required for patients and caregivers.
Examples of qualifying conditions include severe and chronic pain; cancer; persistent muscle spasms; glaucoma; Crohn’s disease; and agitation caused by Alzheimer’s disease. According to a state report, almost 93 percent of Michigan’s medical marijuana patients qualify based on “severe and chronic pain.” The next highest category is 23 percent for “muscle spasms.”