In a Bozeman laboratory, Noel Palmer, a doctor in analytical chemistry, scribbles a series of acronyms and arrows on a whiteboard to show the biosynthetic pathway that's been the focus of his work for the past year. Palmer's detailed presentation, professional expertise and fully stocked lab—including the quietly buzzing liquid chromatographer in the corner—suggest the chemist works for a pharmaceutical company.
Not quite, but close.
Instead of test tubes, plastic bags containing cannabis cover the lab's countertops. Palmer will analyze each one to identify and quantify its chemical compounds, giving Montana medical marijuana patients and caregivers who come to him something they've never had before: knowledge of exactly how strong their medicine is, and a better sense of how much patients should take.
"It's the dosing," says Palmer, co-founder of Montana Botanical Analysis, located in the Bozeman Medical Arts Center. "That's one area where I feel like our work has really impacted physicians and the general public. Those are concerns that seem to be fairly common. How do you dose this stuff? But you can. We're here and we're doing it right now...We can talk numbers. It's not just some dude who makes cookies in a kitchen."
Palmer does indeed talk numbers. He thumbs through a stack of files and pulls out a printout of a recent analysis. The liquid chromatographer detected a handful of cannabinoids—the active constituents of cannabis—with the biggest blip on the chart corresponding to THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive and analgesic substance in cannabis.
Patients may have a hard time deciphering Palmer's printout, but they'd have no problem reading the labels on the dozens of glass dropper bottles containing glycerin-based cannabis tincture on the counter. Just like a pill bottle from a pharmacy, each bottle's contents are printed on the front. One, for example, contains 13.7 mg/mL of THC, less than 0.2 mg/mL of CBD (or cannabidiol), and 1.8 mg/mL of CBN (or cannabinol). Clients hire Montana Botanical Analysis to not only test samples, but also to create these tinctures—test, package and seal them—thus creating a chain of custody ensuring patients know exactly what they're ingesting.
Measuring dosage shouldn't be a lot to ask of a substance that's been legalized for medical use in 14 states, but efforts to better quantify the makeup of medical marijuana are in their infancy. It's an area of the industry that, beyond benefiting patients, helps allay concerns of medical marijuana opponents who say the plant isn't regulated enough to be prescribed as medicine.
"I think physicians are uncomfortable with the whole idea of 'take two hits and call me in the morning,''' says Michael Geci, the physician who partnered with Palmer to open Montana Botanical Analysis in January. "They want to know about dosing. And from a medical-legal point of view, I see where they're coming from. What are we prescribing to these people? Every other medicine or supplement in the U.S. has a label on it except cannabis. Why? That's what the inspiration for this was. If you're going to call it a medicine, you need to treat it like a medicine. If you don't call it a medicine, then don't bring us into it."
The company, along with Missoula-based CannabAnalysis, stand out as the first labs in the state working to bring scientific rigor to an industry that's lacked it. And they hope what they're discovering has the potential to convert even the staunchest opponents of medical cannabis.
Palmer and Geci bring impressive resumes to their work with Montana Botanical Analysis. Palmer studied ice cores from Antarctica using analytical and spectroscopic methods as part of his post-doctorate work at Montana State University, which he quit to help launch the company. Geci has practiced emergency and integrative medicine, mostly in New York, since the mid-'90s, and is a member of the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine.
"I don't think there's anyone in the country that's got the intellectual capital to do the kind of work that we do," Geci says.
Geci is referring to the company's technology and he and his partner's collective expertise, as well as their relationship with Dutch scientists who have decades of experience analyzing cannabis. The scientists, Geci says, have visited Montana Botanical Analysis a handful of times as part of what he calls an "international collaborative arrangement." He's tight-lipped about the proprietary information they've imparted, and goes so far as to limit what the Independent can photograph inside the lab.
While Montana Botanical Analysis may be on the cutting edge of cannabis science, similar labs are cropping up in other states with medical marijuana laws, most notably California and Colorado.
"They're absolutely increasingly popular," says Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), "and they are for pretty commonsensical reasons, and that is that most of us, obviously, when we buy a medicine, [we want to know] it is safe, that it has gone through some degree of testing, some degree of quality control...[Testing] is standard fare for almost everything we consume whether it's food or drugs."