Weed Science 

Montana chemists bring quality control to medical cannabis

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"I think if you show this to physicians they can question some of the studies, but they can't question the greater picture—that there's something there. It's real," he says. "And it's not just THC. It's all these other things that are really the magic. THC is easy to find, but science is really going to unravel all of these other cannabinoids."

Tom Daubert, founder of Patients and Families United, a group that lobbies for marijuana patients' rights in Helena, says caregivers are beginning to identify and breed strains with a greater diversity of cannabinoids.

"I have no idea how many of the producers are aware of these nuances," he says. "Certainly the better ones are and are taking it seriously."

Palmer, Geci and Habib all say the entire industry is beginning to catch on.

"Patients are definitely becoming more and more savvy, and it's moving at an exponential pace," Habib says. "The labs are offering these services, the caregivers are starting to learn that [quantification gives them] an edge, and immediately patients are starting to learn [about the benefits of cannabinoids besides THC]. And now that it's not a back-alley transaction, where you go into a storefront...and you're treated like a normal citizen, it's improved their access to what they actually need, and that's been great for them."

Adds Geci: "We're starting to get some variability, and we're responsible, I think, for the reorientation for a lot of providers that this really is a medicine for beyond just chilling somebody out on the couch."

Legal ambiguity

The science behind medical marijuana is still evolving, as is state's legal approach to the industry. The Montana Legislature is expected to address the Medical Marijuana Act when it convenes in January, with a particular focus on the law's many ambiguities. Some opponents are calling for the law's outright repeal, while others believe simple clarifications can address alleged abuses.

Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, chair of the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee, has led the effort over the past six months to draft a bill to help rein in an industry that's seen the number of patients on the state's rolls jump from 7,339 on Jan. 1 to 26,429 by the end of November. The industry becomes increasingly contentious with every dispensary that opens its doors, but Sands believes giving legal cover to cannabis labs—cover they currently lack—is something most legislators should agree on.

"The people running the labs have scientific degrees and they're doing really important work," Sands says, "and I think that's absolutely critical as this goes forward."

Shockley, who would prefer no medical marijuana program at all, agrees with Sands.

"If we decide to not totally do away with medical marijuana and we're going to keep it in existence, reputable and licensed laboratories seem to be a good idea to let them test it to see what people are using," Shockley says. "That makes sense to me."

click to enlarge Bozeman’s Montana Botanical Analysis makes cannabis tinctures with the quantity of the cannabinoids THC, CBD and CBN printed on the front, similar to a traditional pill bottle. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Bozeman’s Montana Botanical Analysis makes cannabis tinctures with the quantity of the cannabinoids THC, CBD and CBN printed on the front, similar to a traditional pill bottle.

Habib, who plans a major lab expansion next summer, points out that the current law fails to take into account secondary service providers—couriers, bakers, chemists, horticulturists, etc. Only patients and caregivers can legally possess marijuana, which means that she and Palmer can legally possess and analyze their clients' medicine only if they're patients or caregivers themselves. Habib lobbied Sands' committee over the summer to acknowledge secondary service providers, but she's pessimistic her appeals will materialize in whatever legislation is passed in 2011.

"I think the patients are only going to benefit the more above board it becomes, the more other professionals are allowed to participate in this industry without fear of prosecution," Habib says. "I need microbiologists, I need chemists, I need professional kitchen people. I need all these people just for my business alone, and they all benefit patients in the long run."

Advances in cannabis quantification may not just affect the law, but law enforcement. Currently, law enforcement considers, for example, cannabis tincture weighing an ounce to be an ounce of cannabis, even if that tincture only contains 1/8 of an ounce of actual cannabis and the rest glycerin. The interpretation puts patients who would rather not smoke at risk, since a few bottles of tincture could put them over the ounce they're legally allowed to possess.

Palmer says he's approached law enforcement with a proposal on how to quantify cannabinoid content in edibles and relate it to plant material, but the discussion didn't go far. Law enforcement lacks the appropriate instrumentation, he says, and it faces barriers to outsourcing forensics to private labs.

"Law enforcement needs a clear protocol," Palmer says.

More to the point, law enforcement needs a medical marijuana law that better reflects how medical marijuana is being used. Mark Long, chief of the Montana Narcotics Bureau, points out that cannabinoid quantification matters little to his colleagues because the law defines usable marijuana only as its dried weight.

"If the law said you can't sell a product with more than X amount of THC in it, well then it would be important for law enforcement, and these labs would be more critical," Long says. "But right now it doesn't say anything about THC, so really, if we have somebody with a cookie, it doesn't matter to us how much THC is in there...If the THC content of that cookie is two percent or if it's 60 percent it doesn't matter, because the current law just goes by weight, which is goofy. It's just goofy, but that's the way it is."

Long does make clear, however, that he's encouraged by the potential for labs to make medical marijuana safer for patients.

"I think it is an issue with anybody using medical marijuana not knowing what's in it," he says. "That's a sticking point with law enforcement, too, and I think other medical people. It's a product with a lot of variability in what's in it."

Credit the cannabis labs then for at least providing a service it appears most Montanans, no matter their position on medical marijuana, can support. As the Legislature will surely prove when it tackles the topic in January, consensus ends there.

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