The Science Of Marijuana
Wed April 24, 2013
The Marijuana Lab
The Washington State Liquor Control Board is working to figure out how to create and regulate a legalized marijuana market. It’s not clear whether regulations will include limits on things like potency or pesticide use, but right now, there are only a couple of places in the state equipped to measure marijuana purity and potency.
One of those places is called Northwest Botanical Analysis in Fremont. It’s in an unassuming one-story building about a block north of Burke-Gilman Trail, just down the street from Theo Chocolate, two Thai restaurants, and a cafe that offers a stew featuring beef and bacon over french fries.
It would be easy to make a joke about how the lab is ideally situated for people with the munchies. But as founder Alex Prindle shows me around, I notice that Northwest Botanical Analysis doesn’t really give off a "come merge with the couch" vibe.
The lab is in a low-ceilinged, shoebox-shaped room, with a microscope and test tubes on the room-length counter. Marijuana samples waiting for testing are lined up in neatly labeled glass jars. Overall, the place gives off way more of a serious science vibe.
And Alex and co-founder Andrew Marris got into the marijuana testing business for a serious reason. They wanted to provide a measure of quality control for medical users who got marijuana from dispensaries. Alex explains there are no limits or regulations when it comes to pesticide use on marijuana plants. “You have kids growing in their basement, and they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re just trying to make a buck. But they might’ve sprayed it with something toxic two weeks before giving it to a cancer patient,” he says.
I ask Alex how they decide whether something is safe for sale at a medical dispensary, and he tells me there is no benchmark that’s been established nationally or locally. “It’s something we’re trying to establish ourselves,” he says. “And now we’re working with the Washington State Liquor Control Board to try to help them figure out what that benchmark should be.”
Alex explains that the Liquor Control Board has visited Northwest Botanical Analysis. “We’ve walked them through our processes and ideas we have for quality control,” he says. “At that point, they were still researching and absorbing as much information as they could. We have some meetings with them coming up later in the month. I think they’ll have more information for use then. They may even be unveiling the program to us at that point. But I’m not sure. They’ve been pretty vague."
Alex estimates that Northwest Botanical Analysis tests samples from hundreds of growers. “It’s definitely a growing industry,” he jokes. And the lab offers growers within that industry more than just purity tests. It also tests for potency, which is something producers have traditionally tested in their own unscientific way. Alex calls it testing by ingesting.
“People judge the quality of pot by how high it gets you,” Alex says, using air quotes as he says the word "high." The result of all that testing by ingesting? He says most producers are breeding for THC potency.
This is where Alex, Andrew and lab technician Luis Garcia start explaining some of the science of marijuana. The marijuana plant contains several unique chemical components. Some of those components are known as cannabinoids. THC is one of several subclasses of cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant. It’s the cannabinoid scientists know the most about, and it’s the component that’s primarily responsible for getting users high. But there are more than 60 other cannabinoids present in marijuana, all of which can affect the user's experience.
Marijuana also produces a range of organic compounds called terpenes. Usually, specific plants produce specific terpenes. For example, pine trees produce terpenes that cause them to smell like pine. But marijuana is special because it can produce a more diverse range of terpenes than most other plants.
To demonstrate, Alex picks up a sample sealed in a glass jar and unscrews it so I can smell it. I’m surprised to discover a citrusy, piney scent. It’s a lovely, fresh aroma that smells nothing like the wet towel and dirty dorm room scent I’ve long associated with marijuana.
Northwest Botanical Analysis offers terpene testing to help growers zero in on which terpene profiles their clients might most enjoy. Alex says that kind of cultivation, beyond potency, could lead to marijuana consumption that’s similar to a glass of wine at the end of the day -- for people who enjoy the act of smoking, but don’t want to be debilitated. "They just want a little creativity, to take the edge off, maybe some pain relief," he adds.
Andrew says he can see growers producing craft or artisan type cannabis. "Just as people look for new and tasty beers or wine, they’ll also look for that in cannabis. All of us have smelled the old product that’s been sitting around too long, or the stuff that comes from Mexico, and it smells awful. It’s not enjoyable. It’s a really utilitarian way to administer THC. Now we have the technology to look at the flavor components and make an educated guess and enjoy the experience instead of just being a slave to taking the edge off.”
Northwest Botanical Analysis is in a great position to benefit from a legalized marijuana market. But Alex and Andrew are concerned about how that market will work. Alex wants to know how the state will regulate pesticide use among growers. Andrew points out that because marijuana’s been illegal for so long, there are a lot of unknowns.
“The feds have certain standards for all drugs. They do a lot of research and clinical trials,” says Andrew. “It seems like we’ve just skipped over that step [for cannabis].
“Universities have had a lot of their research projects shut down by the federal government, so although we have a pretty good understanding of what cannabis does to you, we don’t have a lot of in-depth university studies, we don’t have long-term studies. It’s just so new, and there’s not as much information accessible to the public. You want to educate the public, and with so little information out there, it’s kind of a daunting task. So that’s the scariest part for me. There are just a lot of question marks.”