When Sam David graduated from Penn State in 2003 he got a typical starting job for an analytical chemist, testing the Boron content of glass. The work suited him. He liked being alone in the lab with his instruments and samples. Everything was pretty straightforward. Not like now. Back then, he didn’t have to deal with local law enforcement, never had to write any campaign contribution checks, and never once did a journalist show up, asking him questions about Boron.
Sam David is the founder of Coastal Analytical, a marijuana testing laboratory on the second floor of an office complex in San Diego. As head of the company he navigates a complex network of relationships with cannabis growers, distributors, government officials,law enforcement and the media. For someone who enjoys the solitary work of a lab, it’s been a big shift but not an entirely unpleasant one. “I will say it’s been more fun. Dealing with cannabis people has been nothing but good.”
As of July 1, all cannabis products in California must be tested for pesticides, heavy metals, bacteria and any other contaminants that could be dangerous to consumers. Since that law went into effect, the demand for lab testing has skyrocketed. “This is the time we’ve been waiting for,” said David. “This had been our biggest month ever.”
Business is booming for labs like this one because there aren’t enough facilities to meet the demand for testing. For one it’s incredibly expensive to open a laboratory. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single instrument and you need qualified employees to run them. Also, because marijuana is illegal at the federal level, it’s hard to get financing to open a new lab business.
Across the state dispensaries are struggling to keep their shelves stocked. “We went from carrying 32 strains to 18 strains,” said Carlos Delatore, who is a director of a dispensary in Eagle Rock. The new testing regulations have forced many of his suppliers out of the marketplace. “We lost 25-30% of our stock and sales are down about 25% since the first of July.”
When Sam David’s lab started testing marijuana at the beginning of this year, most of the samples did not pass the tests. “At the beginning of the year it was 3/4 failing for sure.”
But now that growers and manufactures have had some time to adjust, the percentage of products that fail has dropped significantly. The agency that regulates cannabis in California says, the failure rate has been under 20 percent since July 1.
It’s higher for edible products. That’s because California has some of the highest standards for testing cannabis in the country and those standards apply to every single ingredient in a product, not just the cannabis.
Bryce Berryessa runs a cannabis manufacturing facility and a dispensary in Santa Cruz. One of the products he makes is a chocolate bar with strawberries. “Now all strawberries have to meet pesticide requirements for cannabis,” he said.
Berryessa is one of a several business owners in the industry who are asking the state to change this rule so he could use the same strawberries available at any grocery store, instead of ones that have to pass the more stringent pesticides tests that cannabis does.
For now the cannabis industry is making its concerns known and doing extensive lobbying to get the rules changed. At the close of the most recent legislative session in August no bills were passed that addressed the testing issue.
But all of the regulations currently in place are temporary and will expire at the end of 2018.
The agency in charge of regulating Cannabis in California declined an interview, but the California Bureau of Cannabis has been accepting input and held a series of open hearings where they took comments from the public. Some of those concerns led to the passage of bills at the close of this session. Local governments, industry lobbyists and citizens are all weighing in as the final rules get written into law.