Monday, April 5, 2010

Oakland pot lab fills oversight need

OAKLAND – The mere existence of the Steep Hill Lab presents a
pointed question: How safe is the marijuana provided to hundreds of
thousands of medical pot users in California?

How safe is the marijuana provided to hundreds of thousands of medical
pot users in California?

The Oakland laboratory, started in 2008 by two former growers, has
tested 12,000 pot samples to assure marijuana businesses that their
product isn't tainted by dangerous toxic molds or pesticides.

Nearly 50 medical marijuana dispensaries and pot-growing networks
contract with the lab, California's most renowned cannabis testing

Tens of thousands of dollars in medical marijuana can be rendered
useless if samples are found to contain toxins that could trigger
respiratory infections, sinusitis or worse.

There is no Food and Drug Administration for marijuana. So the private
lab fills a profitable niche in a trade operating without regulatory

"This is a success story of self-regulation," said Addison DeMoura,
Steep Hill Lab's co-founder. "We want people to produce cannabis that
they would give to the dearest person they love."

No state rules in California require medical marijuana be tested. While
few pot businesses want a rap of toxic weed, no inspection regimen
ensures they remove tainted products.

Steep Hill Lab says 3 percent of the pot it tests has unsafe mold levels
under general guidelines for herbal products. Eighty-five percent shows
traces of mold.

The medical pot community has cause for seeking assurances that the
marijuana being peddled is free of toxins that can develop during
growing, drying or packaging.

A 2008 guidebook, "The Marijuana Medical Handbook," warns of
Aspergillus, a mold that can appear in marijuana and numerous other
agricultural products. It can be dangerous for seriously ill people,
such as AIDS and cancer patients using pot to treat nausea or other side

"There have been reports of aspergillosis, a lung infection caused by
inhalation of spores from the Aspergillus fungus," wrote California
marijuana researchers Dale Gieringer and Ed Rosenthal and Washington
physician Gregory Carter.

A 1988 study published by the American College of Chest Physicians
focused on a pot-smoking leukemia patient in Philadelphia whose death
was hastened by an infection caused by moldy marijuana.

Recently, tests on pot that undercover police officers bought from a Los
Angeles dispensary revealed an insecticide, bifenthrin, that registered
170 times "tolerable" guidelines set by the Environmental Protection
Agency for human food or animal feed.

"You may have no idea what it's been treated with," said Assistant Los
Angeles City Attorney Asha Greenberg. Authorities speculated the
dispensary sold pot smuggled across the border or grown illicitly.

A new medical pot dispensary ordinance in Los Angeles requires testing
for pesticides or "any other regulated contaminants" for foods or drugs.

Dr. Donald Abrams, chief of oncology at San Francisco General Hospital
and a researcher in state-funded studies on marijuana's usefulness for
chronic pain, said most medical pot in California is safely grown and
poses no health risk.

"That whole story of people getting fungal infections from inhaling
marijuana is a old wives' tale," he said.

But Abrams said Steep Hill may help establish dosing protocols for
marijuana so that users can know how much they should smoke.

The lab tests potency levels for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the
psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and for other compounds known for
pain-reducing effects.

"This is attempting to standardize a botanical product and let the buyer
understand what they are purchasing in this medicine," Abrams said.

DeMoura, a marketing representative and former pot dispensary operator
from Stanislaus County, started the lab with David Lampach, a former
Wall Street equities trader and marijuana cultivator from Mendocino

Lampach operates a gas chromatography machine that separates marijuana
compounds for testing and a mass spectrometer that identifies
ingredients and potency.

"This is the gold standard for measuring active agents," he said.

Debby Goldsberry, co-founder of the Medical Cannabis Safety Council, a
Bay Area group of pot growers, dispensary operators and researchers,
said the science of testing marijuana remains limited.

"What Steep Hill has done is push this issue forward," said Goldsberry,
whose Berkeley Patients Group marijuana dispensary is also working on a
testing regimen.

As a result of tests from Steep Hill, Harborside Health Center, a
cannabis club that serves 47,000 medical users at dispensaries in
Oakland and San Jose, lists THC levels for each pot strain it provides.

"For the first time in the 3,000-year history of human cannabis
consumption," it proclaims in promotional materials, "patients will be
provided with a scientific assessment of the safety and potency of
products prior to ingesting them."

Steep Hill client Andy Rehm, whose Green Pi kitchen in Berkeley bakes
"Big Bang Brownies" for pot users, once turned away a grower whose weed
"smelled like butane."

He sent the lab samples when another cultivator dropped off pot for the
first time. "Addison (DeMoura) called and said, 'Don't use it' " –
it was positive for unsafe mold, Rehm said.

"We're not trying to scare people," said Dr. Janet Weiss, a toxicologist
who works with the Steep Hill Lab. "We're saying this industry should
join the rest of the world in what food and drugs are required to do. It
shouldn't be a buyers beware market."

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