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Assessing Credible Edibles 

Wednesday, Jul 15 2015

"Patients should not be eating Froot Loops laced with pot," Eva D. says.

Outside a bakery in Emeryville, the tattooed chef and self-described Jewish mom is describing her frustration with the lack of regulation in an industry that has been growing — rapidly — on the fringes of legality in California. Making organic, gluten- and sugar-free, marijuana-infused truffles, Eva distributes them through dispensaries in the Bay Area under the label Ardent Edibles. About 75 percent of her customers, she says, use her products as medication.

In San Francisco, Marjorie Fischer, brands manager for edibles maker Auntie Dolores, has just returned from a workshop at The Apothecarium, a well-known dispensary. Fischer teaches customers about dosing as part of her company's outreach efforts to help consumers use their products medicinally. Like Ardent Edibles, Auntie Dolores features organic, sugar-free edibles. And, like Ardent — and hundreds if not thousands of other edibles makers around the country — both companies are doing it without any real oversight or regulation, much to their frustration. Perhaps even more frustrating, however, is the public perception that they're lackadaisical about the quality and potency of their products.

A study published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association seems only to strengthen that perception. Funded by Johns Hopkins University, "Cannabinoid Dose and Label Accuracy in Edible Medical Cannabis Products" found that the labeling on 83 percent of edibles sampled from dispensaries in Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco misrepresents the products' potency. It isn't only that lollipops and brownies can often be weaker than their labels claim, but the potency is sometimes too high, "placing patients at risk of experiencing adverse effects," according to the study's authors.

"Regulation and quality assurance for edible product cannabinoid content and labeling are generally lacking," they noted.

Or, as Eva D. put it, "We've gotta figure this shit out now."

Figuring out this shit is what Dr. Robert Martin, co-founder of C.W. Analytical, does. Both Ardent Edibles and Auntie Dolores send their products to Martin's south Oakland laboratory for testing on a regular basis, as do numerous other edibles makers such as Kiva, Bhang, and Kandy Care. Dispensaries (the Green Cross, the Green Door, Berkeley Patient Group, Sonoma Patient Group, and many others) submit hundreds of products each week, too.

Martin, whose longish grey hair and goatee lend a resemblance to a nerdier Richard Branson, brings a 30-year career in food science to the game. He's worked in research and development for Dreyer's Ice Cream, and for Kraft Foods, with which he helped draft the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which granted the FDA the power to require nutrition labeling on most foods.

Because of the lack of regulation, many of the labs in California and, indeed, other parts of the United States, aren't working to the same standards, Martin says. A lack of operating experience is common. It's not unusual for someone with a lot of money simply to buy the equipment, set it up in a garage, and call it a laboratory, he says.

"You've got to be a trustworthy lab," Martin says, "and a trustworthy lab will work with you even after you get results you don't like."

Another factor is that many producers and growers simply don't see the need for testing, according to Jeffrey Raber, one of the JAMA study's authors and a co-founder of The Werc Shop, a testing lab in Los Angeles.

One of the points that Raber's study did not address is the ever-shifting number of California dispensaries and the fact that many simply pop up and disappear. There is no record of how many dispensaries exist in the state because, unlike other businesses, they aren't issued an identification number through the North American Industry Classification System, which helps categorize businesses for statistical purposes. There is no category for dispensaries, and, as a spokeswoman at the California Board of Equalization in Sacramento noted, those same business might be registered under another category entirely if they happen to sell other products. According to an estimate by the Los Angeles Times last year, there may be as many as 450 dispensaries in L.A. alone.

None of this will change until the state and, ultimately, the feds step in and install the proper regulatory structure needed to enforce standards. At the local level, San Francisco doesn't even inspect the kitchens of edibles makers within its own borders. In the meantime, however, many green-collar businesses are operating as if they were legal and subject to regulation.

"Before we will even consider sourcing medicine from a new member-supplier, we ask to see test results from an independent lab," said Ryan Hudson, executive director of The Apothecarium. "Those test results just get them in the door. If the results meet our standards, we send samples on our own, for a second round of tests from our preferred independent lab. If they pass those tests, we will consider offering their products to our other members."

The Green Cross, which specializes in delivery, double-tests its own products as well. Kevin Reed, the dispensary's president, says testing occurs in-house, and then with a third-party lab.

In the end, it's little more than an honor system.

"We choose to follow a lot of things we don't need to," said Auntie Dolores' Marjorie Fischer. "It's up to us to self-regulate."


About The Author

Eric S. Burkett


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