By Omar Sacirbey
The world’s largest scientific society will help facilitate cannabis research and the development of testing standards, moving the marijuana industry a step closer to legitimacy.
The 139-year-old American Chemical Society (ACS) – which boasts 150,000 members worldwide from the chemistry and science fields – recently voted to create an official cannabis subdivision.
Previously, the society had a more informal, smaller marijuana committee.
Officials with ACS said “substantial” growth in the medical and recreational cannabis industries over the past few years fueled the decision.
The move signals that the scientific community is taking marijuana seriously, and it could pave the way for improvements in cannabis testing.
“Having a group like this will help everyone get on the same page, and upcoming programming could elucidate existing regulations and testing challenges in the cannabis industry,” said Ezra Pryor, president of EZ Chem Consultancy and chair of the subdivision.
The new group – called the Cannabis Chemistry Subdivision – intends to encourage the development of professional relationships, produce a research symposium and help craft best practices guidelines that could give the industry some much-needed standardization.
It will not conduct research itself, although its members may collaborate independently with one another.
Marijuana business leaders hope the society will be able to solve some of the problems that have plagued the testing side of the cannabis industry over the last few years.
For example, an increasing number of states where marijuana is legal require cannabis to be tested for pesticides, metals and/or other contaminants before it can be sold in dispensaries or recreational stores. However, standards vary state to state by state, and even within states.
And some states don’t regulate testing at all.
“The biggest problem is that we have no standards. It’s a question of unaccredited labs,” said Mowgli Holmes, chief scientific officer at Phylos Bioscience, a testing lab in Oregon. “Everybody knows a lot of these labs are ad-hoc, unprofessional organizations.”
Frank Conrad, lab director at Colorado Green Lab, welcomed the possibility of ACS-approved guidelines, but cautioned that unifying standards across states may not be easy, or even feasible.
“Look at liquor laws,” he said. “I grew up in Vermont, and I can tell you that the liquor laws in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts are all different,” Conrad said. “Once a state goes down a certain path, it’s hard to pull back.”
In the cannabis testing sphere, Conrad pointed out that in some states, like Colorado, testing labs are not allowed to have stakes in cultivation operations, but in others, testing is integrated in the operation.
While the ACS may not be able to unify standards across states, Conrad said its involvement would still raise the quality of the work being done in the industry.
Another issue is that testing standards may be based on faulty assumptions by government officials who developed the regulations.
In Massachusetts, the level of lead – a naturally occurring substance – a marijuana consumer can be exposed to is based on a person smoking an ounce of marijuana daily, which translates into a very strict lead level of 212 parts per billion. That means a lab test may pick-up normal amounts of naturally occurring lead, but under state rules they are interpreted as excessive.
By comparison, in Colorado, lead limits are 15,000 parts per billion.
The testing issues in Massachusetts have created numerous challenges for startup medical cannabis businesses in the state.
Pryor hopes government officials will ask his group for information when developing or refining laws to avoid such situations.
“If people understand the science, they’re much more likely to write sensible laws,” Pryor said.
Having ACS involved in cannabis efforts could also help enhance the credibility of cannabis labs, which have grown from just a handful several years ago to dozens now.
“I see (the new subdivision) hastening the professionalism of labs, and that could lead to some lab consolidation,” Holmes said.
The subdivision will operate under ACS’s Division of Chemical Health and Safety (CHAS), which provides expertise in laboratory safety, chemical management and chemical safe practices.
Pryor first submitted a proposal to the ACS to form a cannabis committee in September 2014. In March, the ACS approved the group’s official committee status. Afterwards, Pryor collected some 460 ACS member signatures to support the committee’s promotion to subdivision status.
Numerous groups are working on industry standards, including those tied to testing specifically.
Americans for Safe Access previously teamed up with the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) to create standards for cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and laboratory analysis.
In 2013, ASA also worked with the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia to develop a cannabis monograph, which created the first scientifically valid standards for companies engaged in laboratory analysis of cannabis, cannabis-derived products and hemp products.
The previously developed standards are invaluable, and Americans for Safe Access has no intention to abandon them, said Chris Brown, a spokesman for the group.
Any new ACS guidelines would be an extra chemical-focused resource for testing labs, he added.
“This is another step in in the legitimization of the medical marijuana industry,” Brown said. “It doesn’t replace (the other standards), but it gets more chemists looking at these kinds of issues,” Brown said.
Omar Sacirbey can be reached at [email protected]