But with Oregon, Washington and Colorado all making pot more widely available to the public, laboratory testing for safety, purity, potency and active ingredients is adding to the legitimacy of the drug.
"This does demonstrate a shift in how we are beginning to treat marijuana in this country," said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Legal products are regulated and sold in a controlled marketplace. And that's what we are going to see -- are already beginning to see -- with marijuana, be it for medical purposes or simply for adult use."
Last year, Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use and moved to put the states in charge of regulating its sale to anyone old enough to drink booze.
Retail sales are expected to begin next year in the two states, after regulatory machinery is developed and in play. And like alcohol, marijuana is going to carry health warnings and a rating for potency, along with certification that it meets safety limits for pesticides, molds and microbes such as E. coli and salmonella.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Oregon since 1998, but patients had to grow the pot themselves or find a grower to do it for them. The Oregon Legislature recently legalized dispensaries where growers can sell marijuana that isn't directly provided to patients.
Gov. John Kitzhaber is expected to sign the law that also calls for pot sold in dispensaries to be tested for pesticides, mold and mildew. Rules have not yet been worked out on how that testing will be done.
Even such limited testing is good news for patients, said Dr. Alan Bates, a state senator who voted for Oregon's new law and a family doctor who prescribes marijuana for some of his patients.
"I'm especially worried about pesticides being inhaled or ingested," Bates said. "We should treat it as a medical thing. If I told you there were herbicides and pesticides inside regular mediation, I don't think people would be happy about that."
Demand will determine if Oregon joins Washington and Colorado in requiring potency testing.
"That is important not only for medical researchers, but also patients, so they can go to a dispensary and say, I need a high-CBD strain," said Todd Dalotto, owner of Can! Research, Education and Consulting, a marijuana research company, and chairman of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Advisory Board, which is helping write the new rules for marijuana.
CBD is short for cannabidiol, a compound found in marijuana credited with a number of medical applications without providing a high
'This could also be something that the market can shake out." he said.
Market demand has already spawned a testing industry, with labs sprouting along with medical marijuana laws. Oregon, Washington and Colorado all have labs within their borders. State-mandated testing will involve certification of those labs.
"Once we have it standardized or certified, we should all be getting the same numbers," said Genifer Murray, CEO of CannLabs in Denver. "Then people can pick a lab based on customer service and other things, versus if they are the cheapest. At least we will be all on the same playing field."
Analytical 360, a Seattle lab that employs 10 people while testing medical marijuana for growers and dispensaries around Washington, is bracing for new competitors moving into the state from California. The lab also expects to open a branch in Oregon.
"It's like a gold rush," said Ed Stremlow, chief operating officer. "We expect a lot of competition."
He said Analytical 360 is already ahead of many competitors by doing mass spectrometry, a more expensive, technically demanding process that can detect pesticides and the active ingredients in marijuana -- such as THC, the compound that gets users high -- in their natural form, rather than a chemically altered form.
A full battery of tests will be expensive, adding about $500 to a 5-pound lot of marijuana, which now sells for $1,500 to $3,500 a pound, he said.
Regulations will also make it possible to trace contaminated pot to its source, the same way it's done with hamburger.
Murray said Oregon is making a mistake by not testing for potency, especially in edible forms of pot such as cookies and brownies. In Colorado and Washington, labels are likely to detail the concentrations of different compounds in the products.
"If it's medicine, you need to dose it," she said. "You can't just, say, take a few puffs every few hours. You can't die from eating cannabis, but you sure can feel like dying if you eat too much."
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