DENVER - As Colorado nears the end of its first month allowing legal sales of recreational marijuana, testing to determine the strength and safety of the drugs for sale remain optional for the marijuana industry.
State officials say part of the reason mandatory testing isn't happening already is a shortage of laboratories to do the job.
So far, only three are licensed by the state.
Tucked in a nondescript building near I-25 and Colorado Boulevard in Denver, you'll find one up and running.
It's a tiny overworked laboratory called CannLabs.
"Right now we can do 9 cannabinoids in under 5 minutes," lab director Heather Despres said.
All day long, technicians at CannLabs destroy marijuana to test how strong it is, and screen for contamination.
"It's kind of sad, isn't it," jokes a lab tech, stuffing a sample of marijuana bud into a tube and adding solvent to strip chemical compounds (including THC) from the plant material.
The lab has found contamination in marijuana before.
E. coli, salmonella, mold, and chemicals have all turned up before, says CannLabs owner Genifer Murray.
She didn't want to get into specific cases, Murray says almost all of her clients fix contamination right away.
Murray worries more about the untested marijuana on the market right now.
"Since you can't die of cannabis, people are pushing the limits with it," Murray said. "I'm scared to death that somebody will die of contaminated cannabis."
Obviously, Murray has a financial stake in testing. She's already expanding her business, planning an upcoming move into a lab space four times larger.
However, Colorado's state government agrees it's important to test.
By October, all marijuana products made will need to be regularly tested.
Testing requirements will begin being imposed in spring of 2014 along this timeline:
• May 1: potency testing for edible marijuana products
• June 1: potency testing for marijuana and concentrates
• July 1: batches must be sampled regularly, regulators can order tests at will
• October 1: regular contamination testing of all products
The contaminant testing will be required to detect bacteria, mold, filth (eg: rodent droppings and flies,) and residual solvents.
Given the looming timeline, business has already started booming for CannLabs.
"We already have a number of clients who are beginning to test things," Despres said, "just to get ahead of the game and be sure that what they have will go on the shelves."
In the meantime, without mandatory testing, labels on pot should say whether testing has been done and shoppers can always ask a pot store to see lab results.
But for now, customers have to simply trust the labs, which operate on provisional licenses because the state hasn't certified them yet.
"I will be so grateful once we're certified and people understand that we do accurate and consistent science," Murray said. "It's very important to us."
It's also important to those who want to make marijuana a product as trustworthy as alcohol or food.
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