Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney spent Thursday afternoon touring Stillwater Laboratories in Olney — the longest-standing state-certified medical marijuana testing facility in the state.
For Cooney, it was his first visit to a facility of its kind, and lab officials spent the better part of an hour offering insight into Stillwater's accreditations, operations and their process for testing medical marijuana and hemp products.
His visit to Stillwater, one of three medical marijuana testing companies in the state, was timely. In 2016, about 57% of Montana voters passed legislation that required, among other undertakings, product testing procedures and inspections for medical marijuana — the use of which was approved by Montana voters in 2004 by a wide margin.
Then in 2018, President Donald Trump signed what has become widely known as the Farm Bill, legalizing hemp production nationwide. Montana farmers, like many others, jumped at the opportunity to grow the popular strain of cannabis, one that offers multiple health benefits but lacks the psychoactive component found in marijuana.
And Stillwater Laboratories emerged amid those 2016 and 2018 cannabis industry landmarks, beginning in July 2017, extending a helping hand in ensuring the quality of products offered at dispensaries and other providers is transparent.
Stillwater is 100% Montana owned and operated and is a third-party testing facility. As a third-party facility, Stillwater functions independently from its clients and other stakeholders, meaning results from lab testing are reliable and unswayed, according to Operations Director Kris Brost.
“The only transfers that are currently allowed by law are from the provider to a lab and then after it's been tested, provider to their patient,” Kris explained.
In two short years, Stillwater has expanded from its first office in Olney to the Helena and Bozeman areas as well. The company supports 15 employees and performs product testing for clients from Cut Bank, to Sidney, to Dillon, and nearly everywhere in between.
The cost of equipment for the Olney lab alone, where they process an estimated 70 to 100 samples per day, is about $1 million. Ron Brost, husband of Kris and laboratory director for Stillwater describes the lab as “world class,” on par with what one might find in cannabis-rich states like California.
“We built this from the ground up with intentions to do our very best with it,” Brost said. “We think the people of Montana deserve that.”
The company can test hemp products nationwide given the recent Farm Bill, but only test medical marijuana products within Montana, considering the plant cannot cross state lines legally.
For hemp and hemp products, including extracts, infused products and more, the lab provides an analysis confirming qualities such as potency and cleanliness, and identifying potential pesticides, mold, heavy metals and more. Ron said hemp can grow in a variety of different conditions and is susceptible to various contaminants for which the lab staff test.
For cannabis products testing, the lab provides an 11-panel “cannabinoid profile” for the flower of the plant itself, marijuana concentrates such as hash oil and infused products such as baked goods and oils. They test for moisture content, seeds, insects, pesticides, potentially harmful microbes, heavy metals such as arsenic, mycotoxins (class 1 carcinogens) and more. Most aspects of the tests are required by the state, some are not.
When testing medical marijuana products or hemp, the lab also analyzes the plant's terpene, which is a compound that gives the product its flavor and character.
“It's in a way the window into the soul of the plant,” Ron explained. “You can learn a lot about the quality of a plant simply by looking at that one aspect. We aren't required by the state to provide a terpene reading, but it's something we offer.”
There are currently more than 34,000 state-issued medical marijuna cardholders in Montana and that number continues to climb every year. As a whole, the industry has undergone drastic changes since medical marijuana use was first green-lighted about 15 years ago.
The Brosts said those interested in learning more about what Stillwater does and more about the industry as a whole and how it has progressed in Montana, including where it sits currently, can set up an appointment to visit.
Upon departure, Cooney described his time at Stillwater as an “eye-opening experience.”
“Whether you are a Montana resident that likes the industry or not, consumers can be assured that labs like this are doing a good job,” Cooney said. “Appropriate and safe methods for regulating this [marijuana and hemp] clearly exist in our state.”
Cooney said there may be initiatives for the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Montana brought to the table in the future, begging the question: How will such legislation change the marijuana industry in Montana?
“If it happens, we will certainly have to increase our operations,” Kris said. “We would find a way to make the necessary adjustments.”
Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.