Chris Goldstein is a South Jersey-based marijuana activist
How much THC is in a joint of medical marijuana?
Maybe all it will take one day soon for users around the globe is to look at the label. And Temple University alum Jahan Marcu, 34, could be a big part of that. Marcu, who earned a PhD in cell biology at Temple in 2013, is working to make vital information for marijuana users is accurate.
Specialized, independent labs analyze marijuana flowers - along with oils and extracts - for potency, cannabinoid levels, molds, pesticides and other adulterants. A whole new industry of these facilities has sprung up across the country, with the most advanced hailing from Colorado and California.
Until recently, there has been no common set of practices, or even baseline levels, for the actual tests. Sending the same buds to two different labs could return a big difference in results. This led to many dispensaries and retail outlets selling products with questionable numbers printed on the side.
Dr. Marcu performed landmark research on cannabinoid receptors while studying at Temple. Now, he dedicates his career to bringing cannabis labs in line with the standards commonly used to manufacturer anything else for human consumption.
"People deserve to know exactly what they are getting," he says firmly.
Marcu worked with the Washington DC based non-profit advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) to create a Patient Focused Certification for existing laboratories. Their badge of approval let medical marijuana patients, and oversight agencies, trust the results printed on products.
The certification draws a years-long effort by Marcu and his colleagues with the American Herbal Products Association to produce a definitive set of best practices. Their mission now is to convince lab operators and state regulators to adopt the guidelines in order to create a truly reputable cannabis testing community.
This week ASA announced a partnership with the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA) to offer the first cannabis lab certification that will be recognized by across the world. Testing facilities would be inspected and their staffs trained to meet the standards.
"An auditor or assessor comes to your site, reviews your documentation and does a physical audit. If your cannabis is tested in Pennsylvania then the results should be accepted anywhere," said Marcu.
The effort could bring some order to the increasing cacophony of competing operators.
"A program like this will assure that labs are using valid methods and their staff are competent," added Marcu.
The ASA/A2LA audit will check compliance with state and local regulations. They will also help bring the site up to the same standards followed by the laboratories used and inspected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and others.
This type of work is not just for stand-alone facilities. Licensed cannabis producers will often train a microscope or chromatograph onto their flowers before they send it out to independent labs. Colorado marijuana regulators have issued several high profile recalls because of pesticide contamination. So, just like commercial food manufacturers, it is best for producers to have this extra scrutiny.
"You may want to know how much THC is in the starting material then in the end product, or the stability of the THC in the packaging," explains Marcu, "There's a huge advantage to having an in house lab."
Many cannabis laboratories in other states don't just geek out on the analysis. Some are in the business of making the extracts. Taking raw plant cannabis and turning it into a variety of oils requires clean rooms, machinery, super critical carbon dioxide or other industrial materials - and a lot of expertise.
This whole corner of the cannabis world caught the attention of financial giant Merrill-Lynch. In a report released to investors and seen first by Philly420, the firm views cannabis related "Life Science Tools" as a most promising area for investment.
Tens years ago most mass spectrometers and liquid chromatography equipment was sitting in academic research laboratories or in the pharmaceutical industry. The Merrill-Lynch report says they are "bullish on the cannabis testing market," because demand for all that exclusive and expensive equipment has skyrocketed. One of the major players manufacturing these tools is Thermo Fisher Scientific, a $17 billion dollar company that keeps two offices right here in Philadelphia.
Merrill-Lynch estimates that the market for this cannabis related lab equipment could grow to between $50 million and $100 million by 2020.
Pennsylvania will be one of the first states to regulate testing laboratories right from the start. In fact, Pennsylvania's program simply cannot run without these types of labs. This will require motivated individuals to build, staff and run these labs. It won't be cheap. Equipment alone can be more than $1 million.
Karen Murphy, the state's Department of Health Secretary, gave some updates this week about the future of the medical marijuana regulations. She temporary regulations would be complete by 2017. That will allow potential growers and dispensaries to begin applying for licenses. Officials hope for the entire program to be running by 2018. It is worth noting that New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware also proposed aggressive time-lines but experienced significant implementation delays.