Do you know what you're really smoking? If you're skirting the law to buy at under-market prices from your neighborhood black-market dealer — well, not so much.
But if you are buying your pot from a state-regulated dispensary, you do. The state of California requires legal marijuana to be tested in medical laboratories before being sold to the public. And that is what created companies like CannaSafe Laboratories in Van Nuys, with a dozen scientists and researchers, two state-of-the-art chromatographs and 700 clients.
CannaSafe is filling a real need, its scientists say. Just look at Eagle 20, a common pesticide in cannabis-land. It's safe to eat vegetables and fruit treated with Eagle 20 (active ingredient myclobutanil), CannaSafe scientists say. But burning cannabis containing Eagle 20 turns the mold-killing pesticide into cyanide gas.
And the danger isn't imagined. Close to 50 percent of marijuana flowers CannaSafe tests contain mold or pesticides, while 10 percent contain Eagle 20. “That’s a problem for people using cannabis for medicinal reasons,” says Aaron Riley, CannaSafe president. “It’s all about quality control. We pride ourselves on helping patients with dosage and safety. If you have cancer, you shouldn’t be inhaling cyanide gas.”
Without testing laboratories such as CannaSafe, quality control would be nonexistent. Smokers would have no way of knowing if the marijuana they purchased was free of traces of cadmium, lead, arsenic or mercury.
Todd Gullion of Orange County sought relief last year from back pain and turned to cannabis. After smoking marijuana, he ended up in the emergency room with serious neurological symptoms, according to an NBC4 report from Feb. 22, 2017. “My hands go numb, my arms go numb, my feet go numb. I feel like I was poisoned,” Guillion said. He had the pot tested and the lab (not the one in this story) found high levels of toxic pesticides, the report states.
Former USC chemistry professor Jeff Raber, who runs a cannabis testing lab, says smoking pot laced with Eagle 20 or something akin to it is “really like injecting the pesticide right into your bloodstream.”
The stars of the CannaSafe show are the $500,000 liquid chromatograph mass spectrometers, which are capable of detecting heavy metals, microbes or pesticides — 17 different tests in all. The machines are the same ones found in big pharmaceutical laboratories. They are used by law enforcement to test illegal substances and by the medical industry to test blood.
Riley beams like a new father when he talks about his 250-pound babies, which are the heart of the business: “These chromatographs are like Lamborghinis, and we have two of them.”
CannaSafe’s chromatographs, which detect the all-important terpenes that determine potency and aroma of a pot strain, are tucked away in sleek, glass-and-aluminum rooms in an industrial office of bare concrete floors in a nondescript block building near Van Nuys Airport.
There are no beakers or test tubes bubbling with chemicals. Only the chromatographs and the other things found in a modern-day workplace — powerful computers, a really good ping-pong table and a basketball game with two hoops.
And clients. CannaSafe has 700 of them, spanning every facet of the cannabis industry from grower to dispensary owner. One client started growing a few plants in his garage. A few years and the end of Prohibition later and he's got a 25,000-square-foot warehouse.
High Times magazine is the highest-profile client. CannaSafe tests all the marijuana entered in High Times competitions in California. Palomar Craft Cannabis in Southern California is another client.
Kyle Castanon, CEO and master grower with Palomar Craft Cannabis, said he’s been using CannaSafe labs since 2012. He has them test for potency, turpenes, microbes and pesticides, and CannaSafe has always been spot on, he says.
Six years ago, Castanon said he sent test samples to several labs before picking CannaSafe because it was accredited by the International Organization of Standardization, the group charged with unifying industrial standards. “For me, (choosing CannaSafe) was personal,” he says. “I wanted to make sure that changes I was making to my cultivation process were positive. I sent samples to 10 labs and CannaSafe was the only lab with consistent results. I want to make sure our grow is compliant, so I have CannaSafe test for everything the state requires now and will require starting next year.”
Different clients, different needs. One customer may be interested in THC levels while another wants to test for mites or mold. Cannabis is one plant susceptible to many diseases and insects, because it’s always moist and tiny critters love eating aromatic flowers.
In some cases, CannaSafe’s customers are learning on the fly. “If someone asks for advice, we give it,” Riley says. “If they don’t, we don’t. We do steer them toward organic practices but we don’t endorse products. We’re a disinterested third party with no other interests than testing. We do introduce customers when one customer is plagued by a problem that has been solved by another customer.”
More important to CannaSafe’s business than its machines are the people running them, says director of operations Antonio Frazier, a materials engineer with a background in the aerospace industry, who says his team comes to the marijuana industry from fields like biochemistry and micro-fluidics. At first, aerospace engineer Frazier was reluctant to do a 180-degree career change to cannabis.
Frazier knew Riley from Furman University, where the two played football. “He said he wanted to go to California to do marijuana and my first thought was he’s still trying to live the dream,” Frazier says. “The more he talked, the more it sounded real. I like being a trailblazer. It’s fun. Plus, we have the consumers’ best interests in mind.”
Frazier’s wife wasn’t convinced. “She was anti-, anti-, anti-cannabis until I quit the science approach and told her about the financial side. She’s a financial lawyer and, once she saw the potential, she got on board.”
Frazier’s also excited about the data CannaSafe is collecting for clients because that data will prove valuable in current and future scientific studies on cannabis. “When it comes time to understanding what cannabis does to the body and mind,” he says, “we’ll have the data scientists are going to need in their research.”
Not only that but CannaSafe has a research pipeline dedicated to finding genetic primers specific to individual people. Riley firmly believes that someday there will be genetic tests that will be able to tell what strain of marijuana is best for any individual.
“We’ll be able to tell how certain cannabinoids are going to affect someone,” he says. “We’ll be able to tell if a topical is best for you or if ingesting or smoking is best, which strain contains the terpenes for a person’s specific ailment.”
All in the name of quality control.