Lev Spivak-Birndorf, Msc, PhD, of PSI Labs Discusses Testing Cannabis in the Age of Licensing

Women Grow welcomed Lev Spivak-Birndorf, MSc, Ph.D., to their March networking meeting. Lev and his partner, cannabis attorney Ben Rosman, began PSI Labs in 2015, and received their license from the state of Michigan in 2018.  Inspired by the medicinal potential of cannabis, Lev feels that cannabis consumers deserve complete transparency when it comes to the quality of their medicine, and provides safety compliance screening for anyone involved in the regulated Michigan cannabis industry. A Michigan Medical Marijuana patient since 2008, Lev was interested in discovering cannabis’ medicinal value as discovered through scientific study. “Knowledge is Power”, according to Lev and PSI is doing its part to expand our level of science-based cannabis knowledge.

According to Lev, before 2015 there was very little lab testing being performed on our marijuana products. Lev added, ”There was some testing before 2015, but there were very few labs, and it wasn’t as popular as it is now or has become over those 3 years leading up to the enactment of the MMFLA.” As the reality of medical and adult-use cannabis has dawned in Michigan, our state’s regulatory department, LARA, has responded proactively by defining safety regulations and seeking the best regulatory practices for providing safe access to Michigan patients.  Our state enjoys an engaged regulatory department, and one that welcomes input from industry experts as they define our state’s requirements for safety testing.PSI received its license from the state of Michigan in 2018, making it one of the first in the state! PSI has been a trusted source of information of quality control in our meds.  PSI tests potency and batch consistency, and screens product for a complicated panel of cannabis contaminants including metals, molds, and residual chemicals, using sophisticated mass spectrometry.

Why do we need to test our cannabis?  Safety, efficacy, and innovation! Testing for potency, batch homogeneity and cannabinoid ratios allows us to achieve accurate titrated dosing so optimal medicinal benefits may be achieved, without adverse effects.  Safety screenings keep the potentially harmful residual solvents and contaminants out of our medicine. Testing also results in more knowledge about terpenes and other discreet medicinally-valuable elements of cannabis.  The more we know, the better medicine we can develop and create. Lev also spoke to the value in validating your meds, “It’s interesting to learn about and quantify your work as a grower or producer!”

As Lev explained, the testing landscape for Michigan Marijuana has changed dramatically since its inception in 2015.  Michigan has looked to Oregon for baselines in testing, as they were early adopters of rigorous chain-of-custody testing.  Prior to 2015, most Michigan cannabis patients were consuming untested products. Beginning in 2015, during a period of voluntary testing, cannabis was tested primarily for potency.  Safety testing was limited to edibles and CBD verification. Foreign materials were noted by visual microscopic inspection. Although the state had yet to establish pass/fall criteria, residual solvent testing became a standard for concentrates in 2015.  Another typical problem associated with testing in the early phase was allowing the grower/produce to choose their own samples, resulting in cherry-picking the best buds.

So what has changed in 2019?  More state control, savvier consumers, and the demand for safe, authentic product!  The MMFLA ushered in a new era for testing cannabis products that includes a focus on public safety and quality control. LARA Rule 31 outlines the rigorous definitions of each safety test.

LARA’s state panel of tests includes:

  • Standards for pass/fail are now defined
  • Pesticide/fungicide and growth regulator residue
  • Microbial testing
  • Residual solvent limits set for inhaled and ingested products
  • Heavy metals testing
  • Batch homogeneity testing for edibles
  • Seed to sale tracking with sampling on site by labs – unbroken chain of custody to make results valid and legally defensible

That bud of your favorite strain of cannabis might look sparkly and smell fragrant, but as Lev cautioned “Perfectly good-looking cannabis can contain potentially harmful pesticide residues, heavy metals and microorganisms.” He further explained that there “is an unseen world in our meds”, and we should be drilling down on the quality of our products with the right testing, “All of this is for the public safety of cannabis.”  Pesticide testing is a new and valuable resource considering the potential damage of certain chemicals. The two most common pesticides used are piperonyl butoxide (PBO) and Myclobutanil also known as “Eagle 20”.  We already know these have been established as hazardous for human consumption, but what remains unclear is the distinct dangers associated with burning these pesticides at high temperatures and inhaling the smoke or vapor.  Testing for these contaminants will mean better patient care for medical patients and more quality cannabis for adult-use.

As much as we love the idea of knowing what’s in our meds, there is something we don’t love: the high cost of testing product!  As many are already aware, testing has become an expensive precursor to selling your wares. At first, Michigan had voluntary testing which mainly consisted of potency testing for around $35.  Now, full MMFLA compliance testing includes 9 categories of safety screenings, and is considerably more costly for all types of cannabis products. Still, consumers have a right to safe medicine and a clear chain-of-custody from seed to fully actualized, sellable product.  Rigorous testing has already resulted in savvier growers/producers who are learning to avoid common mistakes, like not getting water and soil tested before growing plants.

Is there a downside to this level of state-mandated testing?  Yes, if the test seems unreasonable! Take for example, Lev’s experience of testing for a chemical called Chromium (Cr).  Chromium is a metal which could appear in any consumable, and the state fail line for the presence of Cr was anything above 0.5 ppm. Lev questioned the state’s pass/fail line, “…the idea that typical food products from the supply chain could contain amounts of this compound that were greater than the limits set for cannabis products of similar composition, with the only difference being cannabis was added.” For the purpose of cannabis advocacy and reasonable testing, Lev decided to conduct his own study of the amount of Chromium in a common food item, in this case chocolate versus cannabis.  “Cr was showing up at levels up to 2.5 ppm. That was about the top of what we saw from fancy store chocolate.”

The data was clear – there were much higher amounts of Chromium present in your average Lindt bar than cannabis, and so why was the state holding cannabis products to this strict standard?  Lev reached out to LARA with feedback based on his testing, and LARA listened. Once they understood the questionable value of the 0.5 limits, they adjusted it to be in line with other consumables currently on the market.

PSI stands for Precision, Safety, and Innovation. It was a pleasure to learn the history and mission of PSI from Lev, who clearly loves his job! His enthusiasm speaks to the heart of this industry and is especially important to Women Grow, whose main mission is to Inspire, Educate and Connect.

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Eva Morrigan is a contributing writer for Bloom City Club. Eva enjoys living in Ann Arbor where there is much love and support for this industry. She writes about health, science, magic, and cannabis, and their intersections.

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