NM’s cannabis testing laboratories face evolving needs, demands - Albuquerque Journal

NM’s cannabis testing laboratories face evolving needs, demands

Analytical lab manager Calen McKenzie explains the readout of results from a test of a sample of cannabis at the Rio Grande Analytics lab in Albuquerque. (Liam DeBonis/Journal)

If a customer walks into a licensed New Mexico dispensary to buy an eighth (3.5 grams) of flower today, they’ll see more than the product’s name.

They’ll see a label that will show potency levels to let the customer know how much THC — or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive component in cannabis — is in the product.

The label is also an indicator that the cannabis at these licensed dispensaries has also undergone a variety of different tests, including microbiological testing — which includes the search for mold such as aspergillus, bacteria and fungi.

Soon, the Cannabis Control Division will require that cannabis be tested for pesticides to further confirm that marijuana purchased by customers from licensed retailers in New Mexico is safe for consumption. And homogeneity testing will be implemented in the next couple years, ensuring potency levels across consumable cannabis products that sit on the shelves of the hundreds of dispensaries across the state. But as the industry continues to grow with more producers, manufacturers and retailers and as more people consume cannabis, industry leaders say New Mexico’s testing labs — and even new facilities that may be licensed in the future — will need time and resources to adapt. That could include the addition of more testing facilities outside the Albuquerque metro area, and for labs to expand services to offer different types of testing.

As the state’s regulatory framework evolves, “In the future, as we learn more about how cannabis works on the human body, I think there will be opportunities for testing labs to enhance the services they offer,” said Ben Lewinger, the executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce.

Where testing is at

Barry Dungan, the president of the lab division for element6 Dynamics — the parent company of Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Analytics, one of New Mexico’s three primary cannabis testing labs — manages a handful of employees that currently test most cannabis products sold across the state.

The lab, which serves as Rio Grande Analytics’ home base, spans more than 5,000 square feet in Downtown Albuquerque. The lab has stayed consistently busy with the introduction of recreational cannabis, Dungan said, with businesses sending in testing samples regularly.

The lab tests for potency levels, “cleanliness indicators,” and other relevant tests currently required by the state. That includes looking for salmonella and E. coli, but also for yeast and mold.

Dungan and his team currently look for those organisms through plate testing. The plated organisms are incubated at different temperatures for one to two days before Dungan and his team can count the colonies on the plate, and conclude their findings.

But Dungan and his team also test for residual solvents, such as methanol, that may have tainted a cannabis product during the manufacturing process, he said. They do that through a flame ionization detector, which heats up a sample to 85 degrees Celsius and seeks out indicators of contamination.

Future requirements

Cannabis testing continues to transform at a breakneck speed, and labs such as Dungan’s are shifting over from plating to a more efficient method of testing cannabis using polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, testing — similar to what is used in COVID-19 testing.

The new PCR testing is conducted by extracting the DNA out of cannabis samples to help identify specific genes and organisms that can help rule out false positives more precisely.

But PCR testing allows Dungan and his team to also be more efficient with their time as it can test nearly 100 samples at one time, compared to plating each individual sample as they have done previously.

Dungan said Rio Grande Analytics now tests about 400 samples per week, up from about 30 to 40 samples when only medical cannabis was legalized in the state.

“This will probably speed us up by 24 hours, but I don’t see any lab being able to beat a 72-hour turnaround,” Dungan said. “And the reason is pesticide testing. That’s going to be the next bottleneck.”

The new testing requirement has led to Dungan and his team investing hundreds of thousands of dollars — $380,000 to be exact — in a new machine capable of testing for a large variety of different pesticides. As it stands, the state’s pesticide testing requirement will come in the near future after it had previously been delayed because of labs in the state not having the correct and capable machinery.

Barry Dungan, president of the lab division for element6 Dynamics – the parent company of Rio Grande Analytics — holds samples of THC concentrate to be tested at the lab facility in Albuquerque. (Liam DeBonis/Journal)

Labs, when the new requirement goes into effect, will test for Abamectin — typically used to control fire ants — and Paclobutrazol, and 13 other pesticides. It is likely more will be added to the list as stakeholders in New Mexico’s cannabis industry, including state officials, weigh the pros and cons of pesticides used in the growing of the state’s new cash crop.

But pesticide testing is very new for the state — and even for a well-established lab such as Rio Grande Analytics.

Dungan and his team were trained in August in how to use the new machinery as soon as it was installed at the facility, and the lab, including other licensed labs, have kept in touch with state regulators on where they are at in the process of getting ready for the additional testing requirements.

“We still touch base periodically with the labs to see where they are in the process in terms of their capacity to test for (pesticides) and, you know, whether or not they have the equipment,” said Robert Sachs, deputy director of policy for the Cannabis Control Division.

Also included under new state testing requirements is homogeneity testing, which is expected to go live in 2024, Sachs said.

Homogeneity testing is relatively new — it is something Colorado only began doing recently — and it focuses on ensuring potency levels across the board are consistent for a cannabis product such as a package of edibles.

“We wanted to make sure that the industry gets up and off the ground before we start implementing a new test that hasn’t really been adopted industry-wide across the country (yet),” he said.

What’s the need?

Dungan said the state’s burgeoning cannabis industry can likely support the addition of a couple more labs, particularly in southern New Mexico, to help ease some of the burden put on the three licensed labs and to address issues some cultivators and manufacturers are running into with border patrol checkpoints.

When adult-use sales began, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials sent out a reminder about potential seizures if cannabis is discovered at one of southern New Mexico’s checkpoints.

“U.S. Border Patrol agents will continue to take appropriate enforcement action against those who are encountered in possession of marijuana anywhere in the United States,” a portion of the statement read.

Rio Grande Analytics has already planned on addressing the lack of a lab in southern New Mexico by opening a satellite campus in Las Cruces, Dungan said.

“There’s a lot of room for growth,” Dungan said. “The main focus really is on Las Cruces right now.”

Other industry leaders also say the addition of a few more labs would be helpful.

Why the state doesn’t have its own lab, or labs, is a question some industry leaders and state officials have pondered. But the state has not yet decided to create a “reference” cannabis testing lab, instead using the Department of Health’s lab in certain cases.

“What we have decided to do is work together with the Department of Health and their Scientific Laboratory Division. They do have a testing lab,” Sachs said. “And so if we need to test for particular samples — (if) we hear of a mold complaint, for example — we can then take that sample and send it to that lab. … They also are conducting oversight of the (independent) testing labs themselves to make sure that all of the equipment is properly calibrated and just to make sure that essentially the results that they’re saying that they’re getting are as accurate as possible.”

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