Last Piece of the Puzzle
The Last Piece of the Puzzle: Testing Facilities
Words / Whitney Branshaw
Photos / Whitney Branshaw, Chevelle Abel
The industry was waiting on the last piece of the puzzle when it comes to beginning the recreational cannabis market in Alaska—the testing facilities that will grade and greenlight the product we will see in retail locations across the state. Right now, the only testing facility that is licensed with state and local government is CannTest, LLC. All went as projected and CannTest is open for business as I type, allowing cultivators to test their waiting product that will then make its way to retail shelves across the state.
CannTest is led by Dr. Mark Malagodi, a scientist with a background in business and a passion for having a safe and informed consumer base. He is joined by Dr. Jonathon Rupp, the scientific director of CannTest, who plans to use cutting edge technology to empower the consumer in the decision making process with the most accurate analysis of cannabis products. When it comes to a regulated market, this is a quintessential part of the process. Having an informed and safe consumer base will help support industry success and will further the acceptance of responsible cannabis users in today’s society.
A few weeks back, Malagodi filled me in on the ins and outs of a testing facility’s role in the regulated market, and what led him to the industry. “There are several factors. I believe in the medicinal benefits of cannabis. I’ve met so many people who have benefited from medicinal cannabis use since I got involved in this industry; it makes me proud to be assisting these people as we move forward,” he said. “The other driving factor was the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of an industry. Having my own business over the last 20 years and learning from that venture showed me that this is an opportunity I could not pass up. Between Dr. Rupp and myself we have all the needed experience required to be successful in this industry.”
In mid-October, CannTest began the final steps toward operation after inspections by the state, fire marshall and municipality. “It boiled down to small simple things like ‘flammable’ signs on doors in the lab and a specific size for lettering on the outside of the business,” Malagodi said. “The things we were asked to do were very reasonable and we will be able to complete these requirements within days due to their simplicity. I don’t think the inspection could have gone any better.”
Any product sold in Alaska retail locations is required by law to be tested for potency and microbials. Potency refers to the percentage of the psychoactive component Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and also the Cannabidiol (CBD) content in any sample that is tested. Knowing the potency of the product allows consumers to customize their high and make educated decisions when navigating a regulated market. Microbial testing ensures that the product is free of mold and bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and aspergillus. Concentrates are held to the same standards, but are also tested for residual solvents (insert your “tane soup” jokes here). The same goes for edibles, which cannot exceed the dose limit of 6 mg per serving, as set by the Marijuana Control Board (MCB). Originally, the board imposed a limit of 5 mg per serving for edibles, but after testimony from the testing facilities upped the limit to 6 mg per dose to account for variance in testing. “Imagine your edible batch comes back at 5.1 mg per serving when you have a 5 mg limit. That entire batch would fail resulting in a loss for the cultivator and processor,” Malagodi explained. “We advocated for a 6 mg limit knowing it would allow for some variance in results when people are aiming for a 5 mg dose.”
A common misconception is that testing facilities will also test for pesticides. “The grower is required by the MCB to generate a label stating what—if any—pesticides were used during the cultivation process and how that was verified, but it’s not something we will be testing for. Again, our main function is to track potency and ensure the product passes microbial testing,” Malagido said.
CannTest offers terpene testing for those cannabis connoisseurs in the industry, as well as additional CBD potencies not required by the MCB regulations. CannTest will also accept samples to be tested from an unlicensed grow, provided that the sample is submitted in person and their identifying information is verified so it can be tracked within their laboratory management system. MCB stipulations prevent them from accepting any personal grow product from unlicensed operations off the road system or through the mail.
This safeguards them on a federal level in regard to what is outlined in the Cole memo—a document that advises states how to partake in a regulated cannabis market with little to no federal overreach. Right now the MCB is in talks with TSA and the feds to regulate people traveling with marijuana within the state, and how to manage licensed facility transfers for those who do not live on the road system.
The last hurdle for CannTest to clear was laboratory approval through the Outside agency A2LA, a California company contracted by the state.
“Alaska contracted with A2LA under two types of evaluations- ISO 17025 and an Alaska Standard evaluation,” Malagodi said. “The problem that results from this is that there are a lot of specific regulations that get put forth from both of those evaluations and it’s hard to differentiate between the two. That is what was holding us up at that moment. Cynthia Franklin worked on making this happen for us by sorting out the language surrounding the difference between the two evaluations that A2LA is completing and helping to push the approval through. Everyone wants to see us in business as soon as possible, and we are thankful for that.”
The highly anticipated start of legal recreational sales is just days away. With the approval and operation of testing facilities we will finally see product that not only has to meet regulation requirements, but also allows consumers to gain knowledge surrounding the products. With consumers making informed decisions, we further societal support of normalizing responsible adult use in our communities.
Budding Industry is Whitney Branshaw's column in the Anchorage Press. The Last Piece of the Puzzle: Testing Facilities originally appeared in the October 27-November 3 issue of the Anchorage Press.