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Testing, though, doesn't suddenly place cannabis alongside other drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In fact, it's far from comparable. Even if a patient knows exactly the percentages of cannabinoids in a strain, they can't account for the various methods by which it can be ingested, nor, no matter the method of ingestion, what constitutes an appropriate dose.
Kevin Sabet, special adviser for policy in the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, underlined that point when he spoke at the Montana Supreme Court Administrator's annual drug court conference in Helena in September. Despite Montanans voting clearly in favor of medical marijuana in 2004, he said it is "not how we do medicine in this county."
"Marijuana cannot be the one exception in the history of the world that doesn't go through a scientific process to be approved as medicine," Sabet was quoted as saying. "It doesn't make any sense."
But Rose Habib, owner of CannabAnalysis, says FDA approval shouldn't be the ultimate goal of cannabis proponents.
"The truth is, cannabis doesn't fit into the FDA box," she says.
Habib points to the fact that the pharmaceutical industry and government oversight is focused on single-compound pills, whereas cannabis, with its myriad cannabinoids, has a synchronistic effect.
"Look at the number of cold relief medications on the market," she says. "Each one appeals to a different person. I don't think it's fair to say that cannabis needs to be in a very small box in order for people to be comfortable with it. People have found through using it that different strains, different methods of uptake, all these things treat their symptoms differently. And the people who are sick, and the people who are in a lot of pain, benefit tremendously from this product, and they have learned to adjust their dosage and adjust their method of intake to suit their needs."
Habib believes cannabis is more appropriate for use in over-the-counter products or herbal supplements—"whenever it becomes legalized."
In the meantime, Montana's cannabis labs are focusing on how to raise the overall credibility of the drug.
Montana Botanical Analysis tests for more than a dozen cannabinoids—including THC, CBN and CBD—each with different therapeutic effects. According to Palmer, the company has handled more than 1,000 samples this year. Each test typically costs $79, or less for caregivers with fewer than five patients and patients who grow their own cannabis.
Missoula's CannabAnalysis, which declined to give the Independent a tour of its lab citing a concern over client confidentiality, uses roughly the same liquid chromatography technology as Montana Botanical Analysis. Habib doesn't put a number on how many tests she's conducted since she started the company in January, but says she serves hundreds of clients. She charges $125 for cannabinoid profiles, or less for clients with multiple samples. CannabAnalysis, like Montana Botanical Analysis, also makes quantified tinctures. Habib says CannabAnalysis will begin pesticide screening and micro testing–tests for yeast and mold, total aerobic bacteria, and coliform—next week.
"A lot of people are entering this industry who aren't seasoned growers," Habib says of the impetus behind testing for contaminants, "and a lot of the product they may end up with has pathogenic mold in it, or they'll use pesticides...and those things can harm patients in the long run. Since we're dealing with a medical product, those things need to be tested and worked on so people are developing a safe, quality product. That's my goal. That's the whole business plan—a safe, quality product for patients."
Habib counts a biology degree from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and professional experience doing environmental remediation testing at the Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City, Mo., along with work in chemistry labs analyzing corn, margarine and nutraceuticals, among her qualifications to study cannabis. She says her work helps eliminate the guessing game patients too often play when they take their medicine.
"I provide quantitatively dosed products so you know you're getting exactly this many milligrams of THC when you eat this," she explains. "In the beginning, patients didn't know what that meant. They were like, 'Well, is that an ounce, or a gram, or is that two grams, half a joint? What is that?' Well, I don't know. But you're going to have to try it and find out and then you'll come back and say, 'Okay, I know what 10 milligrams feels like. Now I know I want 20, or only 5.' They're learning this process, and that gives them concrete numbers to work with. They're becoming more educated and they're using that knowledge."
What Habib explains sounds like progress to one of the state's leading medical marijuana opponents. Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, who drafted a bill for the 2011 legislative session that would repeal Montana's voter-approved Medical Marijuana Act, says the cannabis labs' work makes him more likely to embrace the burgeoning industry.
"If somebody can quantify the dosage—maybe rationalizing it would be another way of putting it—I think that would certainly be a step forward," he says.
Cannabis scientists are helping to pinpoint something that may prove to be far more useful than cannabinoid quantification.
Palmer becomes giddy when his explanation of cannabis' biosynthetic pathway reaches CBD, a cannabinoid with no psychoactive effects that, therapeutically, may be more promising than THC. He refers to it as "the silver bullet of the modern cannabis movement."
"It's not about THC anymore. It's about everything, the blend. It's all of these in there," Palmer says, pointing to the cannabinoids written on his whiteboard. "We think of them working symbiotically."
A 2009 study in Trends of Pharmacological Sciences titled "Non-psychotropic plant cannabinoids: new therapeutic opportunities from an ancient herb," conducted by five European scientists, identified 18 non-psychotropic effects of CBD. It can treat muscle spasms, cancer, diabetes, nausea, inflammation and pain, among other conditions.