Pot-Testing Lab Fills Lingering Void

By Jessica Greene
|  Thursday, Apr 8, 2010  |  Updated 2:23 PM PDT
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New Medi-Pot Tax Approved in Oakland

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Since the federal government doesn't recognize marijuana as medicine, there are no Food and Drug Administration safety guidelines for it. And, even though the state of California allows medical cannabis under the Compassionate Act of 1996, there are no state regulations either.

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Everything from pet food to kids' toys undergoes rigorous testing before it's put on the market and now there's a place that tests one of Mother Nature's oldest remedies: cannabis.

Sure, people have been "testing" pot for decades. But this isn't the kind of trial and error  that happens in a hazy room full of tie-dye wearing, long-haired, post-hippie era dropouts. This is science in the name of safety.

Steep Hill Lab is just that -- a laboratory, where marijuana intended for medical use is tested for toxins, mold and other impurities.

The lab sprouted a couple years ago in Oakland, just as the medical marijuana move in California started becoming mainstream. Since then, more than 50 dispensaries have joined the lab's network, helping it to become the state's most renowned cannabis-testing site and possibly paving the way for state standards.

Two former growers paired up to launch Steep Hill, which has so far tested 12,000 pot samples. Buds are analyzed for several different types of mold spores. Testing for pesticides will soon be added to the process.

Steep Hill also tests for another important factor: potency. The samples undergo analysis to define the levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which someday could lead to dosing guidelines for patients to decide which strain is best for their needs. The lab is not affiliated with any collectives.

One of the cannabis clubs in Oakland on service with Steep Hill already posts the THC level information alongside their menu of medicine. Another Bay Area provider, Andy Rhem of Berkeley, is using Steep Hill's testing for the cannabis he bakes into his pot edibles, like brownies and cookies.

But the lab doesn't test edibles after they've been cooked. So Rhem adds a layer of oversight to his kitchen in the form of an on-site micro-biologist who checks out the pot before it's baked and ensures safety in the kitchen.

While 85 percent of the marijuana tested at Steep Hill has shown traces of mold, only 3 percent of those samples have been deemed unsafe under general guidelines for herbal products.

Since the federal government doesn't recognize marijuana as medicine, there are no Food and Drug Administration safety guidelines for it. And, even though the state of California allows medical cannabis under the Compassionate Act of 1996, there are no state regulations either.

Steep Hill co-owner Addison DeMoura told the NewsReview of Sacramento last year that he hopes the next step is regulation for the medical marijuana industry.

"We hope we are setting a standard for all medical cannabis providers, and this will evolve into a necessity for the medical community."

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