During the morning rush at Oakland's Harborside Health Center, workers slide samples of medical marijuana into display cases. But along with some catchy names, the labels also display letters like THC and CBD -- active ingredients in marijuana.
"In my view, if we're going to call it medicine, we need to know what's in it," says Harborside executive director Stephen Deangelo.
DeAngelo manages Harborside and the medical marijuana products it dispenses. He now has them tested for potency, as well as specific compounds believed to help symptoms like pain and nausea..
"As with all medicines, dosage is important," he says. "We want to make sure patients take proper dosages, make sure they don't take too much medicine. So having this objective measure allows patients to analyze and measure dosages more carefully."
He says it is the kind of testing the Food and Drug Administration routinely mandates for all kinds of medicines.
"The difference, of course, is that there is no federal agency that regulates medical marijuana, and no network of certified labs set up to test it," he says.
Enter Steep Hill Lab, a fully outfitted laboratory specializing in the analysis and certification of medical marijuana. There, samples are dried, weighed, and carefully catalogued and then run through a battery of tests.
"That's the first step in any good quality control, you weigh your sample," says Dave Lampach of Steep Hill Lab.
The lab was founded by two former pot growers and has quickly expanded along with the medical marijuana industry. It now services about 50 dispensaries around the state.
"I think because of who we are, the industry is demanding best practices," says Steep Hill Lab's medical director, Dr. Janet Weiss. "So we stand for patients so they get medication that is likely to prove effective."
Besides potency, the marijuana is also screened for potential contaminants like pesticides and toxic molds. It takes about 72 hours to analyze a sample and the results are sent back to the dispensary before the product is put on the shelf.
"If they get results that are non-conforming, residues too high for that lot, then generally it's returned to the grower," says Weiss.
Several communities are currently considering ordinances to make testing mandatory. But with or without government oversight, advocates believe the lab is helping to establish dispensaries as responsible players in medical treatment.
"I think the cannabis industry needs to demonstrate to fellow citizens that we're worthy of the trust we're asking for," says DeAngelo. "Any steps we can take to legitimize the business I think is a good thing."
Lab workers at Steep Hill Lab say the most common contaminant is a form of mold that can cause problems with patients with compromised immune systems. They say it shows up in about 3 percent of the samples tested.