In this written Q&A, we ask Jay about his experience during Washington’s transition to a legal market, what it’s like doing the day-to-day work of a cannabis testing lab, what advice he has for entrepreneurs in the space, and more!
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Ganjapreneur: We’re rapidly approaching the five-year anniversary for Washington’s state-legal cannabis market. How would you say things are going, so far?
Jay Burns: Overall, I would give it a C+. Taking out the criminal penalties has been a big win for everyone, and with that alone, it’s been a great success from a social justice point of view.
The growth of the Washington market has been great for consumers, too. They have so many product choices now, most of which are good quality and relatively inexpensive. Retailers also seem to be doing well, while producers and processors are having a harder time. Some big farms are doing well, too, but the smaller ones are struggling because the wholesale price is so low. Testing labs, along with the rest of the industry, are dealing with changing regulations and always have to be prepared for more changes in the future. Government regulations need to shift away from a punitive mentality to more of a management mentality.
Looking forward, what major changes — legislative or otherwise — do you see on the horizon for the I-502 marketplace?
We anticipate that some form of pesticide testing, and possibly heavy metal testing, will soon be mandated in Washington state, but it’s still unclear what this will look like. The biggest issue here is the fact that science has not yet caught up with the needs of the industry. Cannabis is a difficult matrix to analyze, and it isn’t yet clear if similar testing methods from other industries will work. Nor is it clear if actions, limits and regulations on pesticide usage are applicable to cannabis production.
We need to get off the “potency system” where cannabinoid concentration drives the price. This will benefit everyone. I also think we will eventually see a shift to more environmentally friendly production. Right now, everyone is trying to produce however they can and with what they know. But there will be a movement among some in the cannabis industry to practice more awareness of the impact growers and the entire industry have. For instance, transporting product around for QA samples requires energy and fuel – bringing up geographical questions like should sellers and producers set up shop in or around the same location? These and other environmentally based issues will start to come to the forefront in the next few years.
Another change we anticipate is the legalization of CBD. Again, it’s unclear how this will be regulated, what tests will be required, or how it may cross over with the current cannabis market.
What would you say are the top misconceptions about working in cannabis? How about specifically for running a cannabis testing lab?
One of the biggest misconceptions we hear is that labs like ours test the product by using the product. Seriously. This is a frequent comment from the general public. Sometimes in jest, sometimes not. So let me put this one to bed, this is not the case…in our lab at least!
There is also an idea among some that the analytical process is some easy system where we put the sample in a box and all the numbers pop out. I can assure you, it is far more complicated than that and involves many steps and different instruments.
Another misconception comes from customers themselves, many of whom often blame us when they get results they don’t like. Somehow, we are responsible for their low cannabinoids or high bacteria counts. Go figure.
Additionally, customers will sometimes provide unusual or unique products for testing. They can be made of compounds that are difficult to extract or that may cause interference with our analytical process. They’re often unwilling to let us know what’s in the product, to protect proprietary info potentially, but this makes it very difficult for our lab to provide accurate data.
From the beginning, the standardization of consumer product testing has been a big topic for the industry — how has that discussion changed in the last five years, and what action(s) have you or the industry as a whole taken to improve the testing process?
There is talk about standardization from labs and regulators, however, very little progress has been made. The AOAC recently released new testing methods, but they’re not easily accessible and haven’t been tested in a real world setting yet.
Even after five years, there is still no real collaboration among labs to help work through the issues of standardization. The focus is directed more toward competition than cooperation. The Washington Department of Ecology is supposed to be working on standardizing methods, but this could take up to four or five years. It’s unclear at this point how much the industry will be involved, but there has been no mention yet of creating workgroups.
Another big hold up to standardization within the industry is the lack of federal regulation. This would advance much more quickly if non-industry scientists and academics got involved from a research perspective. The industry needs better “basic” research to support ongoing “applied” research. Basic research leads to a better understanding of plant and products without the bias of those trying to sell it. It will also lead to different questions being asked and different methods of answering those questions. Plus, research done by academia will be shared with everyone. Now, most research is proprietary.
What has been the most rewarding part of the last five years, for you?
For me personally, it was getting the lab started. Going through all the initial validation of our methods and audits to get approval. It was hard work and took a lot of time, but it felt really good to get it done.
Overall, it’s been very professionally satisfying to participate in the cannabis industry. I’ve welcomed the opportunity to utilize my training and experience in science, policy and education through my work with Treeline Analytics.
What has been the most challenging obstacle so far for you and/or your company?
There have and continue to be many obstacles in this business. To name a few – hostile competition and regulators; labs stabbing each other in the back; regulators taking a punitive approach instead of cooperation; and regulators’ lack of science literacy. Another obstacle for us is fighting all the misinformation that exists. For example: labs don’t do work; we’re responsible for “bad” results; labs are all dishonest.
Labs like ours actually work really hard to produce accurate results. Our processes are very tightly regulated, both legally and by scientific principles. But regulators often ignore these processes because they are unfamiliar with the complexities of science.
The social landscape can also be tricky to navigate. It’s hard to tell who is real, or who is just a lab group in disguise.
It can be hard to balance the maintenance of a healthy industry with protecting public health. Knowing that over-regulation is already stifling for some industry participants, would you suggest further changes to help protect consumers?
In theory, some regulations have the best intentions to protect consumer safety but in practice, they put too much burden on the industry. For example, the WSLCB is currently proposing a new regulation that would require pesticide and heavy metal testing on cannabis products before they reach the retail level. But in our opinion, this type of testing on all intermediate and final products is unnecessary. The protection of public health could be achieved more efficiently, both financially and practically, by the random sampling of producers and processors at the farm level, along with the random sampling of packaged product.
Furthermore, the industry needs to improve how its QA samples are collected in order to be truly representative of lot size. The sampling of 4 grams from a 10-pound lot will produce a QA sample that is statistically insignificant for the protection of the public. Due to analytical error, sampling error and natural variation of the cannabis plant, lot size should be reduced from the current 5-pound limit in order to achieve a truly representative and accurate result.
With so many of Washington’s producers focusing on indoor crops, is there much effort to emphasize sustainability in the industry and are there any regulations that address these concerns?
No, there aren’t any regulations that address these concerns yet. But there should be more effort made to prioritize environmental protection in how cannabis crops are grown, both indoors and outdoors. For example, regulation of waste, energy used via grow lights, and even the use of pesticides and how that may enter the ecosystem are all sustainability issues that should be considered, regardless of where or how the crop is grown.
Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs or investors who are looking at getting involved in the cannabis industry?
Think twice. But if you’re really serious about this business, be sure to do your due diligence. Learn the legal landscape and consider any pending or future changes that could take effect. Learn the market. Try to find areas that have not been over-produced.
What advice would you offer students or lab scientists who hope to find work in a cannabis testing lab?
There are plenty of opportunities to work in a cannabis testing lab, you just have to take it seriously. Create a real resume. Sell your skills. Familiarize yourself with the different areas you might want to go into, from sample prep to microbiology to high level chemistry. While the cannabis industry is still fairly new, it’s like any other industry or job. So most importantly, always be professional.
Thanks, Jay, for sharing your insights and experience with Washington’s industry! You can visit TreelineAnalytics.com to learn more about the lab and the cannabis testing process.