For most consumers, insight into Alaska’s commercial cannabis industry will start and stop at the retail counter.

But take a look behind the door, and you’ll find a bustling industry everywhere from the grow rooms to production facilities from suppliers and graphic designers to transportation logistics. That’s no different for the companies that provide the state-required testing, discerning everything from a strain’s potency and terpene profile to whether it’s free of contamination from chemicals or microbes.

The scene at the state’s first cannabis testing facility, CannTest, located in the Ship Creek area just north of Anchorage’s downtown, is bustling on a chilly November afternoon as a half-dozen lab techs prepare several dozen samples of a variety of cannabis products from everywhere in the state for a barrage of testing.

CannTest is a full-service lab that tests marijuana flower, edibles and concentrates. It covers the state-required tests for potency, for microbial contamination of flower and for residual solvents that might be left over in concentrates from processing.

The CannTest lab looks — perhaps unsurprisingly — like any lab you might come across on a university campus. The only real giveaways that they’re working with cannabis are stickers from cannabis companies and an ever-so-faint smell of cannabis in the air.

Product samples are prepared in a lab under a fume hood to ensure the samples are free from cross-contamination before they’re cultured for the microbial test while other lab techs use pipettes to carefully measure out samples to go through the gas chromatograph for testing of residual solvents.

The potency of strains is tested by loading the samples into tiny blue jars that are loaded into one of two liquid chromatographs that can figure out the amount of THC in a product along with the types of THC that are present. The results read out onto a computer screen and the results, along with the rest, are compiled into a report that goes to state regulators and onto packaging.

Jonathan Rupp is the scientific director for CannTest. He was a post-doc student at the University of Alaska Anchorage working on influenza research when Alaskans voted to legalize the industry. Like many people, he said he never dreamed of working in the industry but said his background made it a good fit.

“I see the role for us in this industry is we’re using science and our background to empower consumers, giving them more knowledge about what they’re buying or consuming. We’re also protecting public health and safety by knowing there are these contaminants in the product,” he said. “This was previously illegal and there’s a lot of stigma around it. Bringing in science has a way of dispelling a lot of that stigma.”

Learning and growth

Like many parts of the fledgling industry, there was no blueprint for what a cannabis testing facility should look like when Rupp set up shop with owner Mark Malagodi and conducted the first-ever test for Alaska’s cannabis industry. But Rupp’s background made it easier to come up with the testing procedures needed to meet the state requirements.

“I think there’s a lot of learning curve for everybody,” Rupp said, noting that the state wasn’t prescriptive with the requirements for labs. “There’s a lot of problem-solving no matter what your background is.”

To that end, Rupp and Malagodi said they have calibrated their business in large part to meet the needs and demands of the industry. Following the closure of Anchorage’s other testing facility, Malagodi brought on additional staff and purchased additional machines.

CannTest is also capable of producing a profile of a strain’s terpenes. Terpenes are plant compounds that help produce the smell and taste of the marijuana. They also play into what’s called the “entourage effect” where the effects of marijuana are defined by more than just its THC content.

Such a test isn’t required by the state, but as the market has matured, there’s been more and more attention paid not just to a strain’s terpene levels but also what kind of terpenes are present.

The company is in the process of adding a second gas chromatograph, which is used in developing the terpene profiles and testing for residual solvents in concentrates. But the second unit is also equipped with a mass spectrometer, a device that is used to determine the chemical makeup of the samples.

Malagodi said they got it in part because it could be used to test for pesticides, something that’s not currently required by the state but might be on the horizon.

“Part of it is we’re capacity-building,” Malagodi said. “The gas chromatograph we had was fine before New Frontier closed. We decided to go with the mass spectrometer for if and when other tests are needed.”

While they stop short of taking a position, both Malagodi and Rupp certainly bristle at the talk on the Alaska Marijuana Control Board about potentially opening testing to Outside investment. Currently, all state-licensed marijuana businesses, including retail, growers, manufacturers and testing, are prohibited from having Outside investment.

There’s been some talk about changing it for testing, with the thinking being that it would open up more testing capacity and more options.

Both say that at least from their perspective it’s not really needed.

“Personally, I feel that the testing we do here is just as good as anything they do in the Lower 48,” Malagodi said. “I don’t see anything that’s any better than what we do.”

Matt Buxton is a freelance writer in Anchorage. Comments about this story? Email editor@AlaskaCannabist.com.

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