Inside the Life of a Professional Weed Tester

Being a pro pot tester is more complicated than you might expect.

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May 26 2016, 3:30pm

Employees at Gobi Analytical, the only lab in Denver, Colorado, that tests marijuana for pesticides. (Photo By Mahala Gaylord/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

This piece was published in partnership with the Influence.

Yes, marijuana testing is an actual career. You might not be shocked at that fact in 2016, with several states across America having legalized recreational pot use. And testing weed sounds like fun, right?

But major life decisions should be made soberly and thoughtfully. To help you with this, I spoke with a real-life professional weed tester about her qualifications and experiences.

Beth Cantrell, 32, has made her career in testing cannabis products at a company called Confidence Analytics in Washington State. She graduated from the University of Puget Sound, where she majored in communications and also studied calculus, physics, and statistics.

So her skill-set includes some pretty in-depth stuff: "[I am] operations manager. I handle helping with QAQC [Quality Assurance and Quality Control] of all our data before it leaves the lab and is submitted to the customer or the lab for approval. I also assist with insuring our transportation program runs efficiently, scheduling all of our employees, making sure we pass audits."

Got that? While this may all seem surprisingly bureaucratic to some, it will come as no surprise to those familiar with the stringent regulations that Washington State puts on growers and distributers. Confidence Analytics is authorized to conduct tests on behalf of both the state and customers.

Now, what about the actual testing?

"When we do it for the state legal marijuana, we do it when the product is ready for market," says Cantrell. "So it's been cut, it's been trimmed, it's been dried. It's ready to package and to go out to the consumer."

And before that, you just need to find out how stoned it makes you, right?

Not exactly. "We do final checks—to see, Hey, is there E.coli? Is there salmonella? Is there any contaminant in the sample?—as well as verification of potency, because our state has certain limits, particularly with edibles where a serving can only be so potent," Cantrell explains. "They don't want anyone to consume something that makes them so high that something bad happens, like has happened in Colorado."

The dispiriting potential for mold growth after a product is shipped is also examined. "They want it to be less than fifteen percent moisture by weight, which is a fairly straightforward test. The other thing that we look for in extracts that are processed with hydrocarbons—so like, butane hash oil or propane hash oil—they have a limit on how many residual alkanes, so how much left over gas is in the product of five hundred parts per million. So we test for that in a gas chromatography flame ionization detector device."

This gas chromatography flame ionization detector device is necessary, but not sufficient. All the equipment and processes used to detect contaminants and assess quality sound absurdly technical—including something called HPLC. "We have a wide variety of equipment in our lab; we use HPLC—high pressure liquid chromatology—for all of our potency analysis for any cannabinoid." If this sounds complicated, that's because it is: "It uses a diode light array. The tested product is put into a solution, which is then injected and passes through the detector and the light. Then based on its response and its response time, we are able to calculate how much of that particular analyte is in the sample—based on percent by weight or milligrams per gram, based on how the math is done."

But now it's about to get interesting. After the product is determined to meet state standards, discovering its potency and quality is crucial. And its smell.

While most marijuana enthusiasts have heard of THC, most probably haven't heard of terpenes. "Terpenes are commonly found in pretty much all plants and some animals actually generate them as well," Cantrell tells me. "They are an organic hydrocarbon, so it's a volatile chemical that evaporates at room temperature. It's the reason that we smell things—so you walk past a rose, and you smell that signature rose smell, that's because bisabolol,which is a terpene, and maybe geraniol are coming off of that flower and evaporating into the air. Those tiny molecules hit your nose, and your olfactory system processes them and recognizes them as smells. So terpenes are the actual chemicals that created the various smells that we perceive in our environment."

Terpenes also have an effect on the way the brain processes cannabis products, according to Cantrell. "Each terpene affects the way you interact with the cannabinoids, and some of the terpenes have an effect on the body in and of themselves, which would be kind of behind the science of aromatherapy—that those chemicals actually do interact with our neural network and our body and create a specific response." This is why many growers pride themselves on having high terpene counts in their product, and why Confidence focuses so heavily on verifying these counts.

If a grower's crop does not meet state standards, they are forbidden from selling it in an unprocessed form. As a result, testing can be a very stressful experience for growers.

"Washington State has made it very hard for customers to remediate and retest and still sell product," Cantrell says. "So for growers, anytime they do a test they are at risk for having to destroy what could potentially be thousands of dollars of inventory based on the test results—or sell that inventory at a huge loss, because it can't be packaged and sold in its current state. It has to be sold processed. I think that it makes testing really scary for growers each time that they send it in. They run the risk of losing a pile of money if the results aren't what they want them to be."

Beth Cantrell has a great deal of experience of contending with the fallout of failed tests.

"Anger is definitely something we deal with," she says. "People do get upset when they fail, when their results aren't what they would expect. We do pride ourselves on providing really good customer service and a lot more consulting than necessary. We will talk to people about their process: What kind of sprays are you putting on? Maybe this is why you have a microbial problem? Maybe this is why your potency numbers are varying more than you would expect? Have you changed lighting? Have you changed your air intake system?"

Confidence Analytics recognizes that it holds a unique position between the regulators and the growers, Cantrell says, and tries its best to be a streamlining factor throughout the process.

As you may have gathered by now, professional weed testers like Beth Cantrell don't personally consume the product on the job. And, of course, ethics forbid the acceptance of bribes.

Still feel like weed testing is the job for you?

Patrick Hilsman is an associate editor at the Influence. Follow him on Twitter.

A version of this article was originally published by the Influence, a news site that covers the full spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow the Influence on Facebook or Twitter.

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