Grow, Gift, Repair

Last week’s TWIW

Good old-fashioned weed — or flower, in industry parlance — is the backbone of practically every regulated marijuana market on Earth. Going to a dispensary and discovering it’s out of flower would be like arriving at a restaurant hungry for dinner, only to realize it’s one of those weird sit-down, dessert-only places that everyone went to that one time in 2008.

Yet that was the situation Boston-area consumers found themselves in this week when the two recreational marijuana stores closest to the city — New England Treatment Access (NETA) in Brookline and Garden Remedies in Newton — briefly ran out of flower, except for a single CBD-dominant strain. (Both have since restocked a strain or two.)

Most would assume the shortage was a result of shoppers switching to flower amid Gov. Charlie Baker’s total ban on vapes, coupled with the fact that just two stores are serving the state’s most populous area.

But the state’s dispensaries insist the real problem is a backup at the two Massachusetts labs licensed to conduct required tests on recreational marijuana for potency and contaminants. In particular, they’re upset with Cannabis Control Commission guidance that requires producers to test every 10 pounds of flower. Previously, marijuana growers needed to send only one sample per batch (essentially, a room full of plants of one strain that were all given the same nutrients, a crop which could yield hundreds of pounds).

Now that more producers are getting licensed and coming online, industry leaders said, the two labs cannot handle the high number of tests. The vape ban is exacerbating the problem, but not causing it, they added.

“NETA has about 1,000 pounds of flower tied up in testing, waiting for results,” the company’s president, Amanda Rositano, told TWIW. “This is not a production issue — this is an industry-wide issue with delays at testing labs. And these delays are the direct result of a rule that was introduced several months ago by the [Cannabis Control Commission.]”

However, the Cannabis Control Commission said that the rule has actually been in place since June, 2018, and that it is similar to the procedures used by most other legalization states.

And the measure was put in place amid criticism that the previous testing system overseen by the Department of Public Health was unreliable, with operators able to pick their own samples and different labs arriving at wildly different results, apparently due to differing methodologies.

“The 10-pound batch rule for testing product samples is one of many public health protections that a legalized market affords patients and consumers,” a commission spokeswoman said in a statement. “The Commission expects licensees to continue prioritizing public health and safety as they follow Massachusetts’ law and regulations and trusts they will make the business decisions necessary to enable safe, equitable, and effective access to cannabis in our state.”

One of the two labs, MCR Labs in Framingham, said it is currently turning around samples in only three days. But several operators said the real time was longer, and that backups at the other lab, CDX Analytics in Salem, are stretching into the weeks.

Amid the finger-pointing, this much, at least, is clear: with the vape ban in place, the commission is under greater-than-usual pressure to keep flower on the shelves. Otherwise, what remains? Pass the 1:1 tincture to the left?

That makes this an opportune moment for the industry to run to the media with its complaint about overly-strict lab rules.

David Torrisi, the executive director of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, denied that dispensaries are using the vape ban and exaggerating shortages to advance their regulatory agenda. He praised the commission, saying officials there have been working with the business group and even visited several cultivation facilities to study how the industry’s preferred testing protocol would work. Torrisi insisted his system, which involves a single sample taken from various parts of a crop, would actually result in more representative tests.

“They’ve been very engaged with us,” he said of the commission.

But, he conceded, the vape ban “is highlighting the need to turn around product quicker.”