Noah Sargent, a laboratory analyst at Nelson Analytical in Kennebunk, on Friday places part of a cannabis flower into a vial containing methanol to make an extract that can be tested for potency and various contaminants. Nelson Analytical tests medical marijuana and is the first lab in the state to apply for a state license to test recreational marijuana for safety and potency. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

A Kennebunk lab with ties to the New Hampshire medical marijuana program has become the first lab to seek state certification to test recreational marijuana in Maine, with another three expected to follow suit before the local adult-use market finally opens in March 2020.

Nelson Analytical has applied for marijuana testing facility certification from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. To get that, it must submit quality assurance and procedures manuals, testing protocols and proof of expertise, financial independence and national accreditation.

A lab must have at least started the certification process before it can even apply to the Maine Office of Marijuana Policy to get the state marijuana testing facility license. So far, no one has applied for one of these state licenses, and only Nelson has begun the state certification process.

That means Maine is still months away from being able to grant a full marijuana testing facility license. But the marijuana licensing office could decide to issue the first applicants a provisional license if they are well on their way to full accreditation and certification, said director Erik Gundersen.

“Setting up a cannabis testing lab, it’s not easy, not at all, but labs are critical to our mission of ensuring the health and safety of all Mainers,” Gundersen said. “To do that, we need an effective and responsible licensing and regulation system. And to do that, we need testing labs.”

The state began accepting applications for recreational marijuana testing labs last month, and all other recreational marijuana businesses on Dec. 5. It has received 76 license applications so far – 38 for retail stores, 27 for cultivation facilities and 11 for manufacturing facilities.

Other states have struggled to license enough labs to test all the marijuana products prepared for sale. Maine has taken steps to avoid that, like licensing testing labs before other marijuana businesses and delaying the most complicated, costly tests until the second year of the market.

Maine does have a few labs that test medical marijuana, but not on the state’s orders. Maine is the only U.S. state that doesn’t require medical marijuana sold here to undergo testing. Instead, labs like Nelson work directly for medical dispensaries and caregivers who use the results for research and development.

Some patients pay to test their medicine, especially when buying from a new place. Home growers may test the harvest of a new strain, while those who make edibles or tinctures at home might want to make sure the first brownie of a batch is as potent as the last or that they’ve boiled off all their solvent.

In its first year in the Maine market, cannabis represented just 3 percent of Nelson’s business, said Lorri Maling, the manager of Nelson’s York County operation. Now, four years later, it has grown to about 30 percent, even though Nelson doesn’t advertise its cannabis testing services.

That number can grow to as high as 40 percent in the fall, when growers harvest outdoor crops of hemp and marijuana and processors turn that flower into oils, tinctures and edibles, said Maling. The industry is eager to assess the value of its yield, and often uses the test results to set wholesale prices.

Cannabis has already played a role in Nelson’s expansion from a lab of four people just two years ago to 11 people today. Maling hired three new people a month ago to prepare for recreational testing, and she expects to hire a few more before the adult-use market opens in March.

She is trying to hire enough people to make sure Nelson can still provide a client with test results in five days without hiring too many before there are enough new recreational clients to support the expansion. She wants to help the industry maintain a steady supply of safe product without raising prices.

Currently, Nelson would charge about $200 to do the tests required in the first year of the recreational market – potency, mold, harmful microbes and filth. She isn’t planning to raise those rates, but she will add on yet-to-be-calculated fees to cover the extra cost of state reporting and on-site sample collection.

“We aren’t looking to get rich, but we are a business,” Maling said. “We need to cover our costs and turn some profit. I don’t think the first round of tests is going to sink anybody, but the second round, that’s a different story. Testing for pesticides, that’s expensive. It takes a long time. Constant cleaning.”

A medical marijuana pesticide test runs $250 under Nelson’s current pricing structure, but it’s too early to say how much it will cost to run state-mandated pesticide tests on recreational marijuana because the Office of Marijuana Policy is still clarifying which pesticides must be targeted, and at what levels.

Maine wants to delay the test for pesticides, heavy metals and residual solvents, which are traces of the chemical used to extract cannabinoids like THC or CBD from crushed cannabis plants, until the market is up and running, for as long as a year after the predicted March 2020 launch of the market.

“While testing is critical, we believe it is equally important that testing be done right,” Gundersen said. “It takes time for independent, top-quality labs to establish themselves and develop capacity necessary to support the growing volume of product moving through a newly launched adult-use program.”

The staggered rollout of state-mandated testing will be up for debate at a Dec. 23 hearing on whether Maine should make its temporary marijuana testing rules permanent. The rules and the phase-in plan are only in effect until February 2020 unless the state decides to make them permanent.

Nelson was known as a water testing company when it successfully bid to become New Hampshire’s first state medical marijuana testing lab in 2015. That led the lab to seek national accreditation to do the tests that New Hampshire requires of all its medical marijuana, which it obtained in 2016.

In 2017, Nelson acquired Tested Labs in Falmouth, which was founded by the brother of Dustin Sulak, a doctor who is nationally regarded as a medical cannabis expert. The brother, Clayton, left Tested shortly after the sale and is no longer affiliated. He is thinking of founding his own adult-use testing lab.

Another lab, Nova Analytics, is already seeking national accreditation to conduct the cannabis tests that Maine will require of adult-use marijuana at a facility it is leasing on Milliken Street in Portland, said its director, Chris Altomare. It will be applying for Maine certification and licensing shortly, he said.

That would be OK with Maling, who said Maine needs as many marijuana testing labs as it can get. State rules require labs to collect the samples from each grow, manufacturing facility and retail store, which is an onerous requirement in a large state like Maine, she said.

Massachusetts, the only other New England state that allows recreational sales, delayed its adult-use rollout from July to November 2018 until it could license two labs. They remain the only labs available to the state’s 28 adult-use marijuana shops, which is causing supply problems to this day.

But Maine lawmakers did write flexibility into the state’s marijuana laws to allow for the waiver of testing rules if the state failed to attract enough testing labs at the start of the market to conduct all mandatory state tests. Last month, Gundersen said he hoped such a wavier wouldn’t be necessary.

The Maine Medical Association calls marijuana contamination “one of the most significant risks” facing the legal market. Threats can range from E. coli poisoning to deadly lung infections, but most risks can’t be accurately calculated because federally funded research is severely restricted.

However, data from regional hospital intakes and poison control records indicate Maine consumers are not getting ill from untested medical cannabis. The Northern New England Poison Control Center got fewer than 15 calls about contaminated cannabis in the last three years, and none led to hospitalization.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported five cases of lung illness related to e-cigarette products, but isn’t saying which products the patients were using or if they bought the products from a regulated tobacco or marijuana store or from a black market dealer.

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