PHOENIX (AP) _ Hunched over a microscope, Steve Cottrell peered at a bud from a
plant that is increasingly used as medicine in Arizona and across the nation.
He pointed at a computer screen that glowed with a magnified image of the
marijuana bud. The sample, the size of a quarter, was covered with powdery white
bumps — a mold that was invisible to the naked eye.
Increasingly, medical-marijuana dispensaries and patients are turning to
laboratories to evaluate medical-marijuana plants, identify potentially harmful
substances and pinpoint the potency of plants and cannabis-infused products,
from caramels and “cherry roll” candies to butter.
Cottrell, 42, and his company, AZ Med Testing, is one of a number of labs in
the state that cater to the burgeoning medical-marijuana industry. The lab,
located in a small office complex in north-central Phoenix, works with about a
third of the state’s 70-plus dispensaries, he says.
Many dispensaries market organically grown marijuana, an important selling
point for patients with weak immune systems that can be further compromised if
noxious elements are inhaled. Using high-tech instruments, Cottrell looks for
mold, bacteria and fungus, which can weaken patients’ respiratory systems. He
also tests for pesticides that can degrade the nervous system. And he tests the
medicine to determine the amount of active cannabinoids — including CBDs, CBG,
THC and THCA — the chemicals responsible for many of the physical and
psychological effects of marijuana.
Patients should know what is in their medicine, Cottrell said, just as they can
with medicine bought at pharmacies and grocery stores. That, he says, is
fundamental to helping patients choose the proper strain and dosage of marijuana
to treat them.
“Patients with a compromised immune system, this can further their ailment and
make it more dangerous for them to consume the medicine,” he said. “So that’s
why we need to make sure all of the samples that we’re testing are free of mold
and microtoxins” that patients can’t see unless “they have a microscope and
they know what they’re looking for.”
When he discovers mold or pesticides, Cottrell informs his clients, who can
decide to distribute the pot or destroy it.
“I’m either the most hated man in the industry, or the most loved,” depending
on testing outcomes, he said with a laugh.
Arizona does not require dispensaries to test for pesticides or fertilizers,
although it does mandate they list chemicals used on plants. The state health
director who oversees the medical-marijuana program said the public urged
officials during the rule-making process to not require testing under the notion
that it could increase medicine prices.
Asked if testing should be required in Arizona, Department of Health Services
Director Will Humble said through a spokeswoman that it is up to consumers to
decide if they want to buy cannabis from dispensaries that test.
Twenty-one states have passed medical-marijuana laws, plus Washington, D.C.
While most states don’t require testing, one national expert said she expects
other states to follow the path of those like Massachusetts and Illinois, which
Betty Aldworth of the National Cannabis Industry Association said “even if
it’s not required, it tends to be sort of a standard.”
Pharmacists can explain to patients the ingredients in painkillers, Aldworth
points out, saying, “Why is medical marijuana any different?”
“We have an expectation, especially when we are managing a chronic condition,
that we are doing it with known quantities,” she said. “For medical marijuana,
it’s the exact same thing. From the consumer side, especially those living with
severely compromised immune systems, they want to know their meds are clean and
they are entitled to know.”
That’s Cottrell’s philosophy. His family owned biological-monitoring labs in
Colorado that catered to the medical and dental industries. He became interested
in starting a medical-marijuana-testing business after he lost his 11-year-old
son to lymphoblastic Burkitt’s leukemia. His son, Kindahl, was diagnosed in 2001
and died that same year, Cottrell said.
“I started investigating things that hurt the cancer, and things that kill
cancer,” Cottrell recalled. “And I found that the cannabis helps with patients
and was alleviating a lot of the things that helped destroy my son. My son’s
immune system broke down so quickly because he couldn’t eat because the
chemotherapy was as strong as it was.”
Nine years later, Arizona legalized medical marijuana. Cottrell dipped into his
savings and launched his business. He began attending medical-marijuana
conventions, meeting advocates and talking to patients and caregivers about the
benefits of testing.
The state’s program became mired in legal and political battles, hampering
dispensaries’ desire to get involved in a program that some worried could be
Still, in 2011, Cottrell opened his first lab out of the closet of a friend’s
business in Tempe. As confidence in the medical-marijuana industry grew, so did
Cottrell’s client list. He moved the business to the Phoenix location more than
a year ago.
Even now, he said, neither he nor his business partner takes home a paycheck.
He has a full-time job that pays his bills.
His clients pay between $40 and $80, depending on the type of test. He tests
about 1 gram for each 2 to 3 pounds grown from individual strains — an adequate
representation, he says.
Back at his microscope, he picked up a bud. “If this flower has pesticide,
their entire crop is going to have pesticides on it. If this flower has mold on
it, because it’s so microscopic, everything’s going to have mold on it.”
He hopes the state will mandate testing, especially if the state moves toward
the legalization of recreational pot, which many advocates support.
That won’t happen if Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, has his way. He
strongly opposes medical marijuana, saying the drug is still illegal under
federal law. He told The Arizona Republic he plans to introduce legislation to
eliminate the state’s medical-marijuana program.
Asked about testing, he said, “I no more support making people who use illegal
substances feel safer than I do giving hypodermic needles to heroin addicts. The
government should never test illegal behavior — period.”
Politics aside, patients should care about what’s in their medicine, said Lezli
Engelking, who runs Bloom Dispensaries. She hires AZ Med Testing to test the
dispensaries’ cannabis. Bloom grows its marijuana, she said, and while growers
know what is put into the plants, things can go wrong.
“We had an A/C unit that went bad, and even being out for an hour, it affected
the plants,” she said. “We had to throw out that entire batch of plants. Mold
can form, it just cannot taste right. And patient safety is number one. We
make sure everything we provide is safe.”