Labs begin testing state’s medical marijuana supply

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Ron Brost tests a cannabis sample at Stillwater Laboratory north of Whitefish earlier this month. Stillwater Laboratory is Montana’s first licensed medical marijuana testing facility. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

Roughly 10 miles outside of Whitefish just off U.S. 93 sits a building that appears to be a series of storage units, including one with bars on the windows. Inside is Montana’s first licensed medical marijuana testing facility.

As part of Montana’s attempt to legitimize medical marijuana, by next year every cannabis provider will be required to send their product to a lab for testing. As of this month, three laboratories have applied to serve the more than 600 providers in the state.

“It’s a life-love to have a laboratory,” Ron Brost said as he recently gave a tour of his laboratory north of Whitefish.

Brost, a PhD chemist, worked for automobile and technology companies most of his career. A few years ago he left his home in the Flathead for San Francisco to follow a paycheck with tech giant Apple. This month, as a way to return home, he and his wife opened Stillwater Laboratory to offer cannabis analysis for dispensaries, grow operations and patients in Montana.

The lab is a result of Senate Bill 333, requiring providers to test their product by licensed laboratories before they’re sold. The rule change sets in April 30, 2018.

“This is medication for people,” Brost said as he adjusted a microscope over a cannabis bud. “There’s a huge range bred into each plant. If the potency is more than a patient expects, it can be similar to the difference of drinking beer or whiskey.”

Two other facilities have opened in Missoula. The labs are operating on a temporary license as the state decides what requirements to include in the new regulations. Labs like Brost’s will have to go through a more comprehensive application after the rules set in.

Brost said that’s left his lab trying to predict what might be coming — but regulations vary by state.

“It’s not just the state. It’s the whole nation asking, ‘how do we test these things?’” Brost said.

“We don’t have any investors in our company,” said Kristine Brost, Stillwater Laboratory manager and Brost’s wife. “We had offers.”

“We didn’t take it because it’s too much of a risk to pass off to somebody else,” Brost added.

JON EBELT, a spokesperson with the state health department, said the three labs operating today are the only applications the state’s received. He said it’s too soon to tell what the demand for labs will be, how many labs will follow the initial three or what their testing capacity could be.

“At this point [the health department] is undergoing an extensive administrative rule-making process that will essentially ‘stand up’ the program once this process is fully completed next year,” Ebelt wrote in an emailed statement.

The state has debated how to handle medicinal cannabis since it was legalized more than a decade ago, resulting in ping-pong-like policies around the drug.

Montana voters established medical marijuana in 2004. By 2011, there were 30,000 people accessing the drug in a state of roughly 1 million.

The surge of use led to federal and state crackdowns in Montana. A provision limiting providers to three patients took effect last August, causing 55 providers to drop out of the program within two weeks and cutting more than 8,000 people from access to cannabis.

Voters lessened the restrictions in November and Senate Bill 333 was soon to follow as an effort to make Montana’s program more transparent and safe.

Malik Burnett, with Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, said it’s not abnormal for a state to take time to begin regulating cannabis. He pointed to California, where medical marijuana was legalized in 1996 but without regulation until 2015.

He said a state rolling out requirements for medicinal cannabis can initially be a burden to patients and providers.

“Most of the laboratories testing cannabis have to start from scratch and have their own learning curve in the process of starting a business,” he said. “...Couple that with intense pressure and backlog of sizable providers all having to go through this small channel, it’s difficult.”

But he said if the regulations help ensure the safety of patients without limiting access, it’s worth it.

As of Aug 14, Montana had 616 providers — all of whom will need their product tested to be legal. Providers with 10 or fewer patients will be exempt from testing requirements until 2020.

The temporary license calls for a scientific director with a doctorate in chemical or biological sciences. It also doesn’t allow an overlap of providers and testing facilities.

Ebelt said the health department is seeking advice from people who have already gone through the process in other states.

“This all takes time and we want to make sure we’re involving key stakeholders in the process and putting forth the best rules possible,” he said.

A LICENSE to operate hangs centered on a wall in Brost’s waiting room. On a table in the room, a few pages that explain the lab’s testing procedure are next to a Marijuana Business Magazine.

“We use molecular biology methods as much as possible, this allows us to use a small sample, because samples are valuable,” Brost said.

Brost walked into the next room and punched in the code for a large safe containing several half-gram samples.

“It’s small, but it’s a good statistical sample that’s repeatable,” he said.

Brost and Kristine said becoming a passenger on the state’s roller coaster with medical marijuana is a risk. But they said they feel they have support from Montana voters, providers and “right now,” lawmakers.

“We’ve had a really positive response so far from providers who want to know what they’re growing,” Kristine said.

“They want to know exactly what they have and what’s best for their patients,” Brost said. “And of course there’s kind of a race, they want to be the best.”

As the state continues to define its rules, the partners are looking to more established measurements to see whether their lab can keep up with national and international standards. Kristine said as they find the right balance for the new lab, they plan to share their ideas with other facilities.

“We’re hoping to get collaboration between the labs in Montana,” she said. “...if we can share reference materials, if we can share methods, we’re actually ensuring that the patients in the state get something that’s consistent.”

“Consistency, that’s the ideal outcome,” Brost added.

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