NM’s cannabis testing laboratories face evolving needs, demands

Calen McKenzie, Analytical Lab Manager, explains how results from a test on a sample of cannabis were read out at Rio Grande Analytics lab in Albuquerque. (Liam DeBonis/Journal)

If a customer walks into a licensed New Mexico dispensary to buy an eighth (3.5 grams) of flower today, they’ll see more than the product’s name.

They’ll see a label that will show potency levels to let the customer know how much THC — or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive component in cannabis — is in the product.

The label is also an indicator that the cannabis at these licensed dispensaries has also undergone a variety of different tests, including microbiological testing — which includes the search for mold such as aspergillus, bacteria and fungi.

The Cannabis Control Division will soon require that cannabis be tested for pesticides in order to confirm that customers who purchase marijuana from licensed retailers in New Mexico are safe for consumption. Homogeneity testing will be used in the coming years to ensure potency levels across all cannabis products sold at hundreds of dispensaries across New Mexico. But as the industry continues to grow with more producers, manufacturers and retailers and as more people consume cannabis, industry leaders say New Mexico’s testing labs — and even new facilities that may be licensed in the future — will need time and resources to adapt. This could include expanding services and adding more testing facilities beyond the Albuquerque metropolitan area.

As the state’s regulatory framework evolves, “In the future, as we learn more about how cannabis works on the human body, I think there will be opportunities for testing labs to enhance the services they offer,”Ben Lewinger is the executive director of New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce.

Where testing is at

Barry Dungan, the president of the lab division for element6 Dynamics — the parent company of Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Analytics, one of New Mexico’s three primary cannabis testing labs — manages a handful of employees that currently test most cannabis products sold across the state.

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The lab, which serves as Rio Grande Analytics’ home base, spans more than 5,000 square feet in Downtown Albuquerque. Dungan stated that the lab has been busy with the introduction and testing of recreational cannabis.

The lab tests potency levels. “cleanliness indicators,”Other relevant tests required by the state. This includes testing for salmonella and E.coli, as well as yeast and mold.

Dungan and his team are currently looking for these organisms via plate testing. The organisms are incubated at various temperatures for one to 2 days before Dungan and his colleagues can count the colonies and report their findings.

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Dungan explained that his team also tests for residual solvents like methanol which may have tainted a marijuana product during its manufacturing process. The flame ionization detector heats up the sample to 85 degrees Celsius, and then seeks out signs of contamination.

Future requirements

Cannabis testing continues to transform at a breakneck speed, and labs such as Dungan’s are shifting over from plating to a more efficient method of testing cannabis using polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, testing — similar to what is used in COVID-19 testing.

The new PCR testing involves extracting DNA from cannabis samples in order to identify specific genes and organisms that can be used to rule out false positives.

However, PCR testing allows Dungan’s team to be more efficient with their time. It can test almost 100 samples at once, as opposed to plating each one individually as they did previously.

Dungan stated that Rio Grande Analytics tests approximately 400 samples per semaine, an increase of 30-40 samples in the past when medical cannabis was legalized.

“This will probably speed us up by 24 hours, but I don’t see any lab being able to beat a 72-hour turnaround,” Dungan said. “And the reason is pesticide testing. That’s going to be the next bottleneck.”

The new testing requirement has led to Dungan and his team investing hundreds of thousands of dollars — $380,000 to be exact — in a new machine capable of testing for a large variety of different pesticides. As it stands, the state’s pesticide testing requirement will come in the near future after it had previously been delayed because of labs in the state not having the correct and capable machinery.

Barry Dungan, president of the lab division for element6 Dynamics – the parent company of Rio Grande Analytics — holds samples of THC concentrate to be tested at the lab facility in Albuquerque. (Liam DeBonis/Journal)

Labs, when the new requirement goes into effect, will test for Abamectin — typically used to control fire ants — and Paclobutrazol, and 13 other pesticides. It is likely more will be added to the list as stakeholders in New Mexico’s cannabis industry, including state officials, weigh the pros and cons of pesticides used in the growing of the state’s new cash crop.

But pesticide testing is very new for the state — and even for a well-established lab such as Rio Grande Analytics.

Dungan and his staff were trained in August how to use the machinery. As soon as it was installed at the facility the lab, as well as other licensed labs, has kept in touch with state regulators about where they are at the moment in the process for getting ready for the additional testing.

“We still touch base periodically with the labs to see where they are in the process in terms of their capacity to test for (pesticides) and, you know, whether or not they have the equipment,”Robert Sachs is the deputy director of policy for Cannabis Control Division.

Homogeneity testing will also be included in the state testing requirements, Sachs said. This test is expected to be available in 2024.

Homogeneity testing is relatively new — it is something Colorado only began doing recently — and it focuses on ensuring potency levels across the board are consistent for a cannabis product such as a package of edibles.

“We wanted to make sure that the industry gets up and off the ground before we start implementing a new test that hasn’t really been adopted industry-wide across the country (yet),”He said.

What’s the need?

Dungan said the state’s burgeoning cannabis industry can likely support the addition of a couple more labs, particularly in southern New Mexico, to help ease some of the burden put on the three licensed labs and to address issues some cultivators and manufacturers are running into with border patrol checkpoints.

When adult-use sales began, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials sent out a reminder about potential seizures if cannabis is discovered at one of southern New Mexico’s checkpoints.

“U.S. Border Patrol agents will continue to take appropriate enforcement action against those who are encountered in possession of marijuana anywhere in the United States,”A portion of this statement is read.

Rio Grande Analytics had already made plans to address the shortage of a lab south of New Mexico, Dungan stated.

“There’s a lot of room for growth,” Dungan said. “The main focus really is on Las Cruces right now.”

Others in the industry agree that a few more laboratories would be a great help.

Why the state doesn’t have its own lab, or labs, is a question some industry leaders and state officials have pondered. The state has yet to decide whether or not to create a laboratory. “reference” cannabis testing lab, instead using the Department of Health’s lab in certain cases.

“What we have decided to do is work together with the Department of Health and their Scientific Laboratory Division. They do have a testing lab,”Sachs stated. “And so if we need to test for particular samples — (if) we hear of a mold complaint, for example — we can then take that sample and send it to that lab. … They also are conducting oversight of the (independent) testing labs themselves to make sure that all of the equipment is properly calibrated and just to make sure that essentially the results that they’re saying that they’re getting are as accurate as possible.”

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