Managing marijuana: How a Mass. lab makes sure it’s safe for patients

MILFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — From your medicine cabinet to your refrigerator, just about everything we consume has to be tested and approved for safety. But that’s not always the case for marijuana.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Rhode Island for a decade. So we wanted to know why the state doesn’t require the drug to be tested before patients use it. Over in Massachusetts, where medical marijuana has been legal for about five years, the state does require testing. Eyewitness News went to a lab that examines the drug to find out how the process works, what scientists look for, and if we’ll see this testing in Rhode Island any time soon.

We traveled to, of all places, 420 Fortune Boulevard in Milford, Mass. That’s the home of Proverde Laboratories. Inside, founder and CEO Dorian Deslauriers gave us a tour. There are times the operation looks and sounds like something out of science fiction, with “plasma fields” and “super critical CO2” used to test marijuana. This lab tests the drug in all its forms, from the plant to oils and edibles.

“Everything is broken down into its elemental component,” said Deslauriers.

In Massachusetts, this type of testing is required. Bay State voters approved medical marijuana almost five years ago. Back then, the state said 30 dispensaries would be allowed to open.

Deslauriers invested in testing equipment, expecting a big return on that investment. But he tells us progress has been slow, with only nine dispensaries open today. Now, he’s focused on research and expansion to other states, like Rhode Island, which is currently drafting regulations for testing medical marijuana.

Deslauriers said it’s about far more than potency.

“The need for testing is real,” he said. “The cannabis is grown in a variety of conditions, from someone’s basement to a professional grow, and all of those have situations where they could impart contaminants into the material. Nobody intends that, but it can happen. And the only way you can tell is by doing testing.”

Deslauriers is talking about anything from heavy metals or pesticides drawn into the plant from the soil, or even mold or fungus on the plants. He said a safe product is his priority and that research and analysis also insures that patients are treated with consistent dosages.

“There are two reasons why you test,” Deslauriers continued. “One for potency, and one for safety. People have been making different extracts and products from cannabis and it’s not been tested. So they’re proficient at doing it, but you need to test to see where you’re at.”

Right now, there is work in Rhode Island to create a new regulatory framework around medical marijuana from tracking to testing. Norman Birenbaum, the Principal Economic and Policy Analyst with the state Department of Business Regulation, said testing is sorely needed.

“The medical marijuana program in Rhode Island has been virtually unregulated since it passed in 2006,” he said.

Birenbaum also noted that Rhode Island was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana, without much guidance from the federal government.

“We didn’t really know what we didn’t know at the time,” he added.

Right now though, the Department of Health is building a new framework of regulations to license testing facilities, so that anything marijuana-based is properly tested, packaged, and labeled.

“First off, these regulations are for public safety and for patient safety,” Birenbaum explained. “So that patients know that what they’re using is consistent in terms of their dosage and what they’re taking and they’re getting reliable results. But also that it’s safe from contaminants, mold, mildew any pesticides, things like that.”

Birenbaum said this will likely open business opportunities for testing companies like Proverde, the lab in Milford that we visited. And that, he said, will be a job creator.

“We want it to be safe,” said Birenbaum. “Right now there’s a lot of murkiness on what’s being used on plants and what’s in medicine. We want this to be a safe as possible, so it’s an integral part of the supply chain.”

Another safeguard the state is looking to introduce is a seed-to-sale tracking system. Birenbaum explains, “It tracks at all points of production and it will allow us to know if something fails testing, what the extent of that is. What the batch is like, and we can quarantine that and have it re-tested. And if we need to we can destroy it. We can also issue a recall if for some reason something fails testing.”

There’s also a focus to make sure Rhode Island stands above practices in other states.

“One of the things we really wanted to make sure was that the testing facilities were third party independent testers,” said Birenbaum. “That people who were growing and selling weren’t doing their own testing in-house, which some states do, which leads to conflicts of interest.”

Birenbaum said we could see the new regulations finalized by June. They would be reviewed at public hearings, according to Birenbaum, then it’s up to the businesses how quickly testing facilities can meet the standards and put a tested, approved product on the market.