Cannabis Testing With SC Lab’s Josh Wurzer
Welcome SC Labs to Budtenders Life! Read as Josh Wurzer goes into detail about cannabis testing in the California cannabis market.
Q: It’s a pleasure having you on Budtenders Life today! How’s it going?
A: It’s going great! We are busy at the lab and that is always a good thing. It seems as though the cannabis industry in California is doing a good job anticipating upcoming regulations and we are seeing an increased interest in testing.
Q: What were you doing before you got into the cannabis testing world?
A: I was working for Samsung as a research chemist developing new electronic materials for use in displays, computer chips, etc. as my day job. Before that, I worked in pharmaceutical research and development synthesizing new molecules for use in drug discovery. However, I had always had a small cannabis garden on the side and had been involved in the cannabis industry on that level for a long time. After several years at Samsung I was beginning to become concerned with the potential long term health effects from exposure to some of the chemicals we used in synthesizing electronic materials and was thinking about looking for a new job. One night in early 2010 I was looking through job postings in the area and came across one for a laboratory director at an analytical lab. The posting was no different than any other except there was a sentence at the end stating the applicant must be comfortable working with medical marijuana. At that time, there were no cannabis testing labs anywhere and I responded to the ad more out of curiosity than anything. I was really interested in what an analytical laboratory could be doing with medical cannabis. I received a call first thing the next morning for an interview and ran up to Oakland on my lunch break. The lab ended up being Steep Hill, the first ‘cannabis lab’ in the country. They had just opened their doors and needed a chemist to run the lab. They offered me the position on the spot and, since I was unhappy with my current job, I decided to take it. At the time I assumed I would have to leave this part of my career off my resume, as director of a cannabis lab would have been considered a fringe occupation at best for someone in my industry. It turned out to be a great decision as I was able to marry my two hobbies; chemistry and cannabis. I spent a year as laboratory director at Steep Hill then resigned to start a lab, with my three cofounders from various part of the cannabis industry.
Q: How did SCLabs become what it is today?
A: By the time my partners and I got together and decided to start SC Labs there were already several labs testing cannabis. Since we knew we wouldn’t be the first to market, we wanted to differentiate ourselves in two ways. We wanted to build a cannabis lab that would follow the same standards as analytical laboratories in other industries and we wanted to use our knowledge as industry insiders to better service cannabis producers and retailers. So, we modeled our quality control and our workflows after established environmental and agricultural laboratories and invested all of our limited resources in the lab rather than marketing. Then, we developed several assays that we knew would be of specific use to cannabis producers or converted assays from the broader agricultural and pharmaceutical industries that were needed in the cannabis sphere. As simple as it is, I think this mentality was really our secret sauce and really any growth that we have had has been due to the fact that we are from this industry and really care about progressing the broader cannabis movement not just for business but as a social cause as well. When our customers call us with a question they know they will be getting advice from legitimate technical experts as well as people who have had their hands in the dirt and understand their needs and challenges. Anyone who has been in the business for a long remembers when raids were common and going to prison was a real job hazard. I think our customers appreciate working with people who have been on the front lines and shared those experiences and who can give them useful advice to help them improve their crop or their product beyond just a bunch of numbers from the lab.
Q: So, can you bring us through the day in the life at SC Labs?
A: Today we have over 60 employees spread across three labs and three field offices so no two employees are having exactly the same experience in a given day. The labs run two shifts seven days a week, so the lab staff is always busy logging and organizing samples, preparing samples for various analysis, running the samples for analysis in various types of analytical instrumentation, analyzing data, and reporting results to customers. Then, we have a second, independent, staff of scientists who solely handle quality control. Their job is to monitor the lab staff and identify any mistakes or inconsistencies in the process and take corrective action to ensure that the results we report to clients are accurate. Beyond that, we have couriers that travel all over the state to collect samples from our customers, a customer service staff that helps to handle any customer questions and coordinates with the lab to make sure our customers are getting any help they need, and we have administrative staff like any other business to handle accounting, marketing, sales, etc. For myself, I don’t get to spend as much time in the lab as I used to in the early days. Most of my time is spent helping to oversee lab operations, planning for new facilities or bringing in new technologies, working with regulators and industry groups to advocate for common sense regulation, and helping to run what is becoming a medium size analytical testing company.
Q: Why is cannabis testing more important now more than ever?
A: I would argue that quality control has always been an important ideal. However, until the passage of MCRSA and later AUMA (Prop 64), there was no framework in California for quality control regulations, including testing, to be implemented. With AUMA and MCRSA testing has become important for cannabis and infused product producers because they will be compelled to do several tests that ensure safety and measure dosage in their products. As we move from a small batch, cottage industry to larger scale production, quality control and testing become really important. Whereas most producers were growing cannabis for themselves to smoke with some left over to bring to market. Now we are seeing much larger operations and just the increase in scale necessitates increased testing. With these very large operations, the financial incentive to spray harmful chemicals to prevent against insect infestation becomes much larger. Furthermore, if a small producer has a garden that becomes contaminated with something like E coli that is a problem, but only for a small number of consumers. If a very large cannabis farm has a problem with E coli, you have a much larger number of people that can become exposed. At the same time, it is important to make sure that the regulations that are passed make sense and aren’t overly prohibitive for the industry. While it might make sense for our bottom line to have a bunch of mandatory testing required, in the long run, regulations have to be attainable and really reduce the potential for harm. In states that over-regulate, you begin to see a backlash against testing in general which doesn’t do anyone any good.
Q: In Colorado, the testing laws seem to be a bit funky. How does California score cannabis flower as a pass or a fail?
A: We have yet to find out. California has not announced action limits or pass/fail criteria. Hopefully California will look at what has worked and what hasn’t worked so well in other states. One of the benefits of California being slow to regulate is that we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes other states have made. This is a new industry and while you can draw parallels to other crops and other products there are a lot of factors that make cannabis unique in this respect. We are working hard to help the state set regulations in such a way to maximize the safety of the crop while taking into account that this is a natural product and there will be variability in things like microbiological levels from season to season or region to region. We have seen where one misplaced pass fail criteria can arbitrarily exclude large portions of the cannabis supply from the market for reasons that don’t really increase safety. What we have seen in our interactions with state regulators is that they are genuinely committed to getting it right and they are definitely reaching out to the industry and asking the right questions. The California market dwarfs most of the other recreational states put together, so we have to get it right or else its going to a real log jam come 2018.
Q: What are some changes in testing that you have seen over the past few years as cannabis moves forward towards a more regulated state?
A: The biggest change has been in the interest in “safety” tests. Tests for things like pesticides, residual solvents, and microbiological contamination made up a small portion of our testing early on compared to cannabinoid quantification. Whereas people could use THC percentage as a marketing tool, doing a pesticide test could only reduce the value of your cannabis. Now, we are seeing a huge increase in the safety tests as people prepare for regulation and as the larger cannabis companies realize that the liability they face for putting contaminated cannabis on the market necessitates quality control.
Q: Can you explain why cannabis testing results say: THCa instead of THC? I believe there is confusion for the end consumer on what the difference is.
A: The cannabis plant does not actually produce THC, it produces a chemical called THCa or THC acid. This THCa is actually not psychoactive like THC. However, when you heat THCa (like when you smoke a joint), it converts into THC. So, in fresh cannabis, we see very little THC but the THCa that is present tells us how much potential THC is in the plant or product.
Q: With more testing and information available, are Terpenes the next thing in cannabis? If not, what trends are you seeing?
A: Absolutely. I think one of the real disservices the testing labs have done to the broader cannabis industry has been to make the THC percentage the leading quality indicator in cannabis. Now, it seems, that unless your cannabis tests 25% or better, you won’t be able to get a good price for it or be able to sell it at all. There are several very valuable and unique strains with interesting terpene profiles that have gone almost extinct just because they have a lower percentage of THC. For me, I would prefer that the cannabis I am consuming taste great and if it has a little less THC, I’ll just take an extra hit or two. Terpenes are absolutely the best quantitative indicator of quality in cannabis. Higher overall terpene content indicates the cannabis was grown, dried, cured, and packaged well and that the cannabis will have a lot of flavor. Terpenes are also largely responsible for the unique effects from one strain to the next. We are starting to see people breeding their cannabis to create new and unique terpene ratios which is really exciting. Right now, 99% of cannabis on the market fits into about 15-20 terpene categories. But, with increased emphasis on terpenes by breeders we are starting to see some truly unique strains being created.
Q: You have nearly 5,000 customers that test with you? That’s an incredible amount. How do you keep up?
A: That has become one of the biggest challenges we are facing as a company. We are definitely in growth mode to accommodate the increase in demand for testing. The real challenge is being able to scale without sacrificing any of the quality or customer service that we consider to be the foundation of our business. It’s been a challenge and we certainly have had some hiccups but we are getting better at it every day and we expect to be ready when regulations go into effect in California.
Q: What are some changes you would like to see within the California cannabis testing world?
A: I think a lot of those changes are already on their way with regulation. Since testing labs will be required to be Iso 17025 certified all labs will have to meet basic quality control requirements. Early on we had to compete with a lot of labs that were cutting corners or were just falsifying results. It was really hard for the consumer to know which labs were and weren’t doing it the right way. Going forward we will be able to compete on our merits. That will really level the playing field for the labs that are doing it right. Beyond that I hope to see the labs move away from such a competitive atmosphere into more of a collaborative spirit. There will be a lot of work for us all and I hope we can get along well enough to promote the industry in general.
Q: Last but most important question! What are you most grateful for today?
A: I’m grateful to have been able to have a front row seat to the changing of history. The movement I have been involved with since I was 16 is on the cusp of victory and it’s really been an honor to have played a small part in that. Today less and less people are being locked in cages for consuming a plant that is such a panacea. In California alone, with the passage of AUMA, we have seen people released from prison or have their records expunged so they can rejoin the work force. I definitely have bills to pay and that is a big reason I go to work each day. But, in the end, the real reason I’m doing this is because I care deeply about the movement. I’m grateful that at least in this one instance the good guys are winning!