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Ann Arbor lab makes sure dispensaries sell high-quality weed

By RYAN STANTONApril 14, 2019

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — As a lab technician in a white coat slides a marijuana sample underneath a microscope, a magnified image of dozens of sparkling crystals appears on a computer screen.

They’re trichomes, oozing with therapeutic cannabinoids, meaning it’s probably some pretty good bud.

But the tiny bugs found among the crystals are another story.

It’s just another afternoon at PSI Labs, a state-of-the-art facility in Ann Arbor where a team of 13 scientists and technicians use high-tech equipment to conduct quality-control testing for Michigan’s cannabis industry, The Ann Arbor News reported.

The lab offers full-service testing for retail dispensaries, processors, growers, patients and caregivers.

One of the first two medical cannabis safety-compliance facilities licensed by the state last July, it tests marijuana flower, concentrate and edibles for both potency and contaminants such as mold, mildew, fungus, pesticides and heavy metals.

The company was started by Lev Spivak-Birndorf and Ben Rosman, two buddies who grew up together in Birmingham.

“Today is just a time where information about what you consume is highly sought after by consumers, and so there’s no reason why cannabis should be any different,” Spivak-Birndorf said.

Dozens of marijuana-related businesses, including new dispensaries, grow operations, bakeries and a high-tech science lab, are laying roots in Tree Town, a city with a rich history of pot activism.

Spivak-Birndorf is a research scientist with expertise in trace chemical analysis, and Rosman is an attorney.

“I’m a Ph.D. chemist in geology, so I spend a lot of time working with mass spectrometers and doing chromatography, which is a separation science,” said Spivak-Birndorf, the lab’s chief science officer.

He and other lab workers are using complex analytical methods to look for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Walking through rooms filled with scientific instruments and digital screens, Spivak-Birndorf explained the science behind each process. For instance, inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, used to detect traces of toxic metals.

“You can see there’s a plasma flame going right now, so that’s an argon torch,” he said, pointing inside a boxy piece of equipment.

“That’s 6,000 degrees Celsius, the same as the surface of the sun. And when samples get introduced to that in an acid solution, they just get rid of their electrons and kind of freak out and get turned into an ion.”

By manipulating them in a mass spectrometer, it’s possible to measure any trace metals.

Arbor Kitchen and Detroit Fudge Co. are among a handful of medical marijuana processing facilities now operating in Ann Arbor.

“This room is just a lot of destruction of cannabis in various ways to get it ready to go,” Spivak-Birndorf explains in another room. “What we do here is put cannabis in these vessels with acid and just literally obliterate all the organic components, leaving behind the metallic content so we can measure that.”

In another room, Spivak-Birndorf explains liquid and gas chromatography.

“This is all organic chemistry,” he said, pointing to a column where samples are injected and vaporized, turning into gas.

“One by one, we separate out complex mixtures and very precisely measure their components,” Spivak-Birndorf said, noting they look for both the good and the bad in each sample.

“That’s Delta-9 THC,” Spivak-Birndorf said, pointing to a live readout on a screen. “That’s usually the main cannabinoid of interest.”

Rosman and Spivak-Birndorf opened PSI Labs in May 2015, seeing opportunity in a budding industry, particularly in Ann Arbor, which has a rich cannabis history. They both live here now.

“I was working in criminal defense with a medical marijuana specialty, so I sort of had a feeling for the industry a little bit, and I also have epilepsy so I’m a patient,” Rosman said.

“When we grew up in Birmingham in the ’90s, we always looked to Ann Arbor as this really cool place that you could go that had sort of lax rules toward cannabis and it just hasn’t changed.”

Spivak-Birndorf also is a patient, using medical cannabis to treat symptoms of Crohn’s disease.

When he was finishing up his postdoctoral research fellowship in metal isotope geochemistry at Indiana University, he’d visit Rosman and they’d go to a dispensary together to check things out.

“He’s one of the smartest guys that I know, and we just started kicking around the idea together of starting a lab,” Rosman said.

They were ahead of the curve, initially helping cannabis producers with research and development, and business is quickly accelerating now that the state is requiring safety testing.

“Anything that’s sold through a licensed provisioning center has to be tested through a lab like ours,” Rosman said.

Their lab, one of only a handful like it in the state, is now running tens of thousands of tests per year, sometimes as many as eight to 10 tests per sample. They visit sites where cannabis products are created and take representative samples back for testing.

After starting as a two-person operation, they’ve already outgrown their first location on Ann Arbor’s west side, and they may outgrow their 6,300-square-foot facility on Varsity Drive.

“And I really didn’t see that happening. When we moved in, it seemed way too big for us,” Rosman said.

“It’s really amazing to see what it’s grown into,” Spivak-Birndorf said. “We’re just in a very exciting expansion period for the whole industry.”

They believe the required testing is improving the Michigan cannabis industry as it transitions to being comprehensively regulated, helping to eliminate contaminants from the supply chain.

“Folks didn’t really want to do the tests, and now they’re being forced to,” Rosman said. “And so I think when people get this data back, it forces them to improve their methods.”

How often does a sample fail?

“Pretty regularly,” Spivak-Birndorf said. “I mean, it’s starting to change. You’ve sort of seen this evolution.”

Mold and bacteria are still pretty common, as well as pesticides, particularly in concentrates.

“The process of concentrating the THC also can concentrate the pesticide, so it can really create a lot of areas there where you can get bad fails,” Spivak-Birndorf said.

“Then we’ll see stuff that doesn’t have any pesticides and it’s just riddled with mites,” Rosman added.

Occasionally, samples fail due to heavy metal contamination, usually in flower.

A good number of dispensaries in the area now go through PSI for testing, which can cost about $400 per sample. Ann Arbor dispensaries typically have high-quality product, Spivak-Birndorf said.

“Ann Arbor, I would say, absolutely has always had sort of a higher quality across the board from their retail scene here. It’s been very — just always conscious of that,” he said. “Testing has been done a lot in this area compared to some of the other places ... so I think they’ve recognized sort of where the market’s going.”

In addition to high standards among local cannabis businesses, Ann Arbor has been a great town for a lab because of the science community and talent pool coming out of the University of Michigan, Spivak-Birndorf said.

“It’s just kind of an exciting and inspirational place to set up to try and change and bring out a new form of science that we should have been doing for decades now,” he said.

“It couldn’t be a better place, as well as being centrally located to a lot of the cannabis activity in the state, as well. We’re sitting not far from most of the hubs where provisioning centers and grows are starting to populate the area a bit more these days.”

Kyle Meyer, who received his Ph.D. from UM last year, said he didn’t think he’d end up working at a cannabis-testing lab when he went to school for chemistry. He was focused on climate science before, but he’s been thankful for the experience at PSI Labs.

“It’s been a phenomenal learning opportunity,” he said. “Most of my work was centered around this form of mass spectrometry, and from here I’ve been able to accrue so many different skills, including help spearheading the development of our microbial testing platform. It’s been an incredible insight into one of the few true growth industries.”

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Information from: The Ann Arbor News, http://www.mlive.com/ann-arbor

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