When customers line up for Washington's new marijuana market this summer, they'll find products, from bud to brownies, labeled with weights and safety warnings. Behind the counter, a whole other set of information will be available to them: independent lab results spelling out each product's potency and whether it may have any remnants of pesticides or bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.
The state will require all growers and processors to submit samples for testing before they're allowed to sell to stores. (Colorado is slowly phasing in similar rules, beginning mandatory testing of edibles last month.) With about 50 growers and processors operating in the state and less than a month until the first stores may be licensed, the race is on to certify these third-party labs.
Marijuana testing labs have already been analyzing products for medical marijuana growers in some parts of Washington, but they'll be subject to a whole new set of rules to serve the recreational market. The Washington State Liquor Control Board's regulations spell out education requirements for lab directors and prohibit them from having a financial stake in growers or processors. A team from Pasco's Columbia Basin College will verify their methods and equipment.
"More testing facilities are a good thing," says LCB spokesman Mikhail Carpenter, so the state will enforce no limit on how many labs can operate. "It's another facet of this business."
Last week, Seattle-based lab Analytical 360 became the first to be state-certified to test cannabis for the recreational market. It's another illustration of the west side's dominance in the marijuana industry. As Analytical 360 and other labs have built businesses testing medical marijuana, there hasn't been a similar lab in Eastern Washington. Since it's illegal to ship marijuana through the federal mail system, that has forced medical growers and lab technicians to drive samples back and forth across the state.
Soon, the drive may get a little shorter. This month, Analytical 360 will begin testing samples at a second lab location in Yakima. The location is a paradox: Both the city and county of Yakima have banned recreational marijuana grows and stores, but it's also the "agricultural mecca of Washington state," says Analytical 360 founder Ed Stremlow, who thinks that means it'll play a big role in the future of the marijuana industry. In the beginning, most marijuana grows are likely to remain indoors, a technique that allows for more precision in growing but is more expensive than growing outside. As cannabis is normalized, Stremlow sees a future where outdoor grows become more common, and central and Eastern Washington could become the industry's new epicenter.
"There's one thing that Eastern Washington has an advantage of and that's sunlight, so we see a paradigm shift over the years to Eastern Washington opening up more and more to cannabis cultivation," Stremlow says. "We want to be right where we think that's going to be at."
Inside Analytical 360, lab technicians start with a visual assessment of the pot sample, looking for size and development. Then they run the sample through a battery of tests, analyzing potency and checking for moisture content, bacteria and chemicals left over from processing. The company then posts the results online. It's all part of an effort to give customers peace of mind about what they're getting for their money and their needs.
"We have this boutique market in Washington," he says. "You see at it at Pike Place Market and you see it in marijuana, too. ... [Testing] has created a very competitive market. People take what they do very seriously here, and everyone wants to be the best." ♦