When Nate Winokur first got into the cannabis game, the industry in California had yet to evolve beyond the Ziploc baggie as proper storage.
It was 2008, and Winokur began asking himself just what they were selling to people.
“We’re talking about something that didn’t have any regulations, any thought to what the future of the product might be, and I saw a massive void in the ability to have a special brand and the ability to start regulating (THC) dosages,” recalled Winokur, 36.
“People in general couldn’t tell you how many milligrams were in a product. They could only sort of tell you how bad they thought it would mess you up. That wasn’t a very acceptable scale to start working from.”
“We’re talking about something that didn’t have any regulations, any thought to what the future of the product might be, and I saw a massive void in the ability to have a special brand and the ability to start regulating (THC) dosages.”
Things have changed, in large part thanks to cannabis enthusiasts like Winokur who have moved out of the kitchen or grow room and into the laboratory. For five years, he has been working for SC Laboratories, one of the largest cannabis testing companies in California, where he is the Operations Manager for Southern California.
Such laboratories have helped growers and edible makers learn about the good, the bad and the ugly of what’s in their products. While such testing is still voluntary in California, big changes are on the horizon. And Winokur says those who aren’t prepared could be in for a big shock.
In The Kitchen
Winokur cut his teeth in the industry selling pipes and working at a head shop. That evolved into a distribution business, and then an edibles company. He launched his own product line, Pacific Sweets, in 2008.
It got him thinking about concepts like decarboxylation, the heating that releases the THC in the making of edibles, and how many milligrams were in the products he sold. With little formal scientific training, he began reading everything he could about the science involved.
“In this setting of living and being in a developed country that we’ve been able to maintain, people deserve and should be only consuming safe goods.”
Winokur then began looking for a way to use his acquired knowledge in a bigger way for the industry and consumers. He’d grown well-connected in the southern California cannabis scene, and through these connections got a meeting with SC Labs in 2011. The interview consisted of visiting several dispensaries, where he made an impression by how well he knew and worked with the other players. He got the job.
Marketing, Not Regulation
In those days, having edibles or cannabis flowers tested was mainly a marketing gimmick, something a product line or dispensary could use to set them above the pack.
“They went for what was marketing friendly, and that was largely potency tests,” said Winokur. Though the technology was available to test for contaminants, why would they bother?
Winokur’s first large client to take an interest in safety testing was the Emerald Cup cannabis competition. Along with showing the THC content and terpene profile—terpenes are what defines taste and smell—they could now conduct residual solvent tests for extracts and edibles. It’s still the most popular safety test SC Labs performs.
“In this setting of living and being in a developed country that we’ve been able to maintain, people deserve and should be only consuming safe goods. And the idea of a residual solvent test is taking these types of extracted products and making sure these extracted products are safe for consumption,” he said.
Winokur convinced more and more growers and producers to submit to voluntary testing. Meanwhile, testing and product information was creating a connoisseur class of cannabis users. They wanted to know the terpene profile. They wanted to know it was free of contaminants.
All sorts of pathogens, such as E. coli, were found in samples. Residual solvent tests revealed chemicals like Butane, Hexane, Pentane, Propane, Methanol, etc… Dangerous pesticides were present. Fungus, bacteria and yeast were all found. In all, about 20 percent of samples fail as unsafe for human consumption, said Winokur.
The situation is not unique to California. Colorado has experienced some eye-opening testing results, and as a result, regulations are growing more stringent regarding testing.
California has none. But that will soon change.
California’s Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act won’t be implemented until 2018, and there is uncertainty about what it means for testing. Another wild card is this year’s statewide referendum on legalization of recreational cannabis and what testing requirements it could involve.
But the bottom line, said Winokur, is that mandatory testing is coming to the Golden State.
That’s why he encourages businesses to get a jump on regulations by submitting samples to a lab. Sure, it’s good for business, and SC Labs has grown by a factor of 50 since he’s been there. But he sees the stakes as nothing less than the industry’s survival.
“We’re going to see people caught with their proverbial pants down. We’re talking about markets that have been able to survive for years without actually having any level of regulation to truly worry about and at the end of that is going to be the other end of the spectrum,” he said.
“We’re going to have something where a producer or grow operation is going to be sending their stuff down river to a distributor and if that distributor has to test something . . . they’re either going to get a letter back saying that their whole crop, their whole product was torched and that everything was incinerated or they’re going to get a check back. That’s going to be a large change from what a lot of these grow operations and producers have seen.”
As for the consumer, they’ll not only be getting a safer product, but they’ll be able to make better-informed decisions, on everything from taste and smell to extracts that mimic the effects of smoking a certain strain.
That’s a long way from buying whatever your dealer had at the time like in the old days. As an enthusiast, Winokur can’t wait for it to happen.
“Yeah it’s a big deal, in terms of just something that’s a little skunkier than the last batch he had but what the hell you’ll take it anyway because it’s not like you have another choice. We’ve come a very long way in terms of what’s available to us, what will be available.”