As of this Sunday, all medical marijuana sold in Arizona is supposed to be thoroughly tested in a state-certified lab. Will that be the case? It's unlikely.
As of Wednesday, no laboratory in the state had been fully certified by the Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS) to provide all the different tests required by the November 1 deadline set in a state law last year.
Raul Molina, chief operating officer at The Mint, which bills itself as the state's largest dispensary, said products would have to go to two separate labs to get a full panel of tests.
“So it’s impossible to get all panels," he said.
The lab in the state closest to being fully certified is currently only approved for five of the seven tests required. Two labs currently offer four of the seven tests and three others have been approved for only one or two of the tests.
Marijuana products will be tested for potency, and also for pollutants like heavy metals, solvents, pesticides, and bacteria, according to state regulations. Arizona has lagged behind other states with medical marijuana programs in requiring testing, something the law and regulations are meant to address.
Part of the issue right now is that Arizona adopted one of the most extensive lists of pesticides to test for — based on Oregon's standards — right off the bat, said George Griffeth, co-founder of the Arizona Cannabis Laboratory Association.
"You don't go from no testing to testing the Oregon list with no hitch," Griffeth told New Times last month. At the time, he was confident that his lab would sail through the certification process with the state. Currently, it's only certified to do potency testing.
Delays in the certification process, according to Griffeth, are due to a backlog of labs for state experts to review, difficulty in calibrating equipment for all of the different pesticides, and a shortage of the substances needed to ensure testing machines are calibrated correctly. Each certification test requires a different state expert to come to lab sites, he said.
“It’s all crashing together at once,” Griffeth said.
The decision on what pesticides to test for was not set in the law, but recommended by a committee of marijuana industry members. Griffeth said DHS is continuing to tweak the requirements as recently as last week, including removing one testing item his lab was struggling with.
Despite the difficulties with certification, Griffeth said the lab has been receiving eight times as many samples this month as it did last month for the tests that have been approved.
“It’s all people who knew it was coming but just didn't do anything,” he said.
Sam Richard, executive director of the Arizona Dispensaries Association, disputed this. He said retailers were waiting until each testing process was approved, or certified, by the state to ensure the accuracy of results they were spending money to get.
“I know of members who have sent samples to multiple labs and received different results from each lab it was sent to,” Richard said.
Either way, Richard said he's confident that dispensaries, labs, and the state will be able to work together to ensure a smooth transition.
“No regulatory scheme is perfect on day one," he said.
Last month, Molina at The Mint had predicted shortages when the deadline went into effect. Now he's less concerned.
“It’s not going to be as bad as we thought,” he said.
While The Mint's products won't technically have passed every testing category, Molina said the merchandise will have received all the testing feasible. He's heard that if the dispensary receives a notice of deficiency from the state, it just needs to submit a notice to the state that they're trying to fully comply but are currently unable to.
Steve White, CEO of Harvest Health & Recreation, Inc., which operates 15 locations in Arizona, said much the same.
“I just don't see anything that on November 1 is going to change,” he said.
A spokesperson for DHS said that the agency will begin implementing the law as of November 1, "while continuing to work with dispensaries and laboratories to ensure that medical marijuana is available and safe for patients."
"Dispensaries working with certified labs should begin offering tested products to patients on Nov. 1," DHS spokesperson Holly Poynter said in a statement.
Kaitlynn Henderson, media coordinator for Desert Valley Testing, the lab with the most certifications, said the lab had started preparing to be certified a year-and-a-half ago. Now, the lab is just waiting to be certified for pesticides, she said. In the meantime, the volume of samples has swelled turnaround times from just three days to up to 15.
“Honestly, we just don’t have enough manpower and hours of the day,” she said.
While White and Molina said they have not had trouble with access to testing, it remains to be seen how smaller operations that don't have existing relationships with laboratories will fare. When Oregon ran into similar issues in 2016, it was small cannabis businesses that were shut out with devastating consequences, said Beau Whitney, who conducted a study of the issue.
In the meantime, consumers aren't likely to see disruptions, though Molina says there may be a few less strains available as producers adopt economies of scale for testing.
“Testing is expensive, but as long as you’re not creating micro-batches you’re going to be fine," he said.
Molina does recommend avoiding any fire sales if a dispensary tries to unload a bunch of merchandise in the next few days before the testing deadline, though.
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