Since the earliest recorded times, as humans we have sought ways to change our perception of reality. From our distant ancestors’ use of psychoactive plants and opium during the Stone Age (accounts of which later surfaced in the Neolithic era) to the use of alcohol in the eastern Mediterranean and in Mesopotamia during the 4th millennium, we have always found ways to alter how we interface with the world around us. According to research by anthropologist Yulia Ustinova of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, pre-history is littered with early hominids getting stoned and protohistoric peoples using seeds as hallucinogens. Indeed, in the Ancient Greek world the results of these temporary departures from the ‘real world’ were classified into four different types of ‘god-induced frenzy’: prophetic, initiatory, poetic, and erotic.(1) So, despite the often polarizing approach to our current society’s use of psychoactive substances, there is – as the well-known idiom notes – nothing new under the sun.
But when it comes to one specific psychotropic substance – cannabis – something new is developing.
In Colorado – a state in which the personal use of marijuana has been legal since the 2012 passing of the popular ballot initiative Colorado Amendment 64 – cannabis technology innovator Green Technology Solutions, Inc., has stepped up the legitimization of the industry by acquiring a Class 5 cleanroom. With an eye on the growing market for medical and recreational pot, the company is banking on its shiny new asset becoming a state of the art testing center and quality control hub for both cannabis growers and their retail clients.(2)
Surprised? To citizens east of the now perhaps even more aptly named ‘Mile High City’, it may come as a shock to know that there are actually four states – Colorado, Alaska, Oregon and Washington – that have already legalized the use of cannabis for recreational purposes. And, along with the District of Columbia, no fewer than 24 states allow the medical use of marijuana under the supervision of a physician. For relief from chronic pain, glaucoma, Crohn’s Disease, and multiple sclerosis spasms to alleviating nausea in cancer chemotherapy, marijuana is rapidly gaining mainstream medical approval across the board.(3) But since it is most commonly smoked, vaporized or ingested in liquid or whole leaf form, it is the production – not only use – of the plant that must be regulated.
Enter Green Technology Solutions, Inc (GTSO). With their purchase of a 1300 square foot Class 5 cleanroom, GTSO aims to work with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Marijuana Enforcement Division which together regulate testing for contaminants. And this is no easy task. Aside from the sometimes tenuous legal position, one of the biggest challenges for cannabis producers comes in a tiny form: the Two-Spotted Spider Mite. Measuring a mere 1/50th inch (.4mm) in length from leaf-puncturing mouthparts to distinctly unsightly rear end, the mite – a common garden pest – breeds prolifically, weaving a complex web around affected parts of the plant in which they support their colony. (For a slightly endearing view of these creatures, watch the Spider Mite Circus.) And the holistic gardener’s solution – the introduction of ladybugs – is not going to solve this problem.
Marijuana is now big business.
And let’s be clear: the pot-growing landscape has changed since the heady days of the flower-power Sixties. Marijuana is now big business. And growing bigger. And in this newly lucrative environment spider mite infestations are costly. In Colorado alone, revenue from medical marijuana sales topped $216 million – in the first half of the 2013/4 fiscal year. We’ll leave you to extrapolate from this. So with this level of revenue on the line and the threat of losing entire plants or indoor grow cycles to pests, early use of commercial miticides is the common response. Products such as Floramite, Hexygon, and TetraSan, while effective in combatting the mites, are strictly limited to the treatment of ornamental flowers and never intended for human or animal consumption. In sufficient doses, neurotoxic miticide residues on cannabis from these sorts of compounds can build up in the body alongside aspergillus, a carcinogenic mold that can also cause kidney damage.(4) Clearly this level of contamination is not acceptable for a medicinal product.
But interestingly ‘unless specifically requested’ testing for pesticides, fungicides, molds and herbicides is not required for recreational or medical marijuana, and there is no industry standard. It seemed a clear indication that a company such as GTSO could easily capitalize on a niche market with few other players. But this was not to be the case.
GTSO started strong. In early 2015, the company made a partial deposit of $122,500 and 3000 common shares on their state-of-the-art cleanroom and promised the ability to ‘demonstrate new, environmentally-friendly alternatives to pesticides and harsh cleansers used in the industry.’ They also trumpeted their ‘valuable, novel services in a fast-growing industry that currently has difficulty guaranteeing their products to consumers.’(5) It all sounded very promising but by the end of that year the company had failed to make full payment on the facility and was forced to consider the deposit a write-off. Given that the company portfolio was already seriously diversified and that its stocks took a nose dive (plummeting from $2.20/share on 03/23/15 to just $0.05/share on 12/23/15) it was soon apparent that GTSO was not destined to become the key player in this burgeoning market.(6)
And as nature is said to abhor a vacuum, others moved into the space to divide up the spoils.
Colorado Product Service (CPS) saw an opportunity and seized it. Already established as a cannabis grower, CPS further developed their 5-acre facility, incorporating a cleanroom environment with what it touted as ‘industry-leading equipment, the cleanest in solvent precursor, as well as top-shelf starting material.’(7) In addition, it developed a marijuana infused extraction laboratory which uses butane and carbon-dioxide based extracts and rounded off the site with a retail dispensary that is open to the public.
And CPS was not the only company to jump on the medical marijuana bandwagon.
Across the country in Florida, MariJ Pharmaceuticals, Inc, a company ‘vested in the medical marijuana and industrial hemp markets’ offered mobile extraction with door-to-door service.(8) For growers without their own Class 5 cleanrooms, MariJ would send a team to perform subcritical carbon dioxide extractions in ‘just a few hours’, leaving the customer with a ‘pharmaceutical and edible grade extracted oil […] ready for testing, packaging and distribution.’(9)
But the medical marijuana land-grab did not end there. With established labs in California, Nevada, and Washington, another of GTSO’s close competitors, CannaSafe Analytics, also had designs on a market share. CannaSafe was established to offer a full-service testing lab to growers and distributors who have a responsibility to ensure both the potency and safety of their product. And CannaSafe was also ISO certified. This certification was significant to Randy Haskin, laboratory director and father of CannaSafe Analytics’ founder, in more ways than one. Firstly, Haskin believed that purity/contaminant testing was critical in ensuring a safe product. For every batch, every time. He saw the regulation of cannabis products as being on a par with other pharmacological substances, already heavily regulated on a state and federal level. And given that chemical may leave behind heavy metals including mercury, zinc and arsenic his point was well made.
So testing for purity and contamination was a given. But Haskin went further and, as leaders in contamination control technology and cleanroom environments it is his vision of future production that has us especially interested. In an article in Boulder Weekly, Haskin made the case for the creation of organic marijuana.(10) In conventional production, cannabis plants are grown either outside, indoors, or in a greenhouse setting. The latter two of these options allows for a degree of contamination control – the grower refrains from direct application of miticides etc. – but cannot allow for the complete elimination of cross contamination from neighboring crops.
And this is where Haskin’s vision was unique amongst those in the business. His solution was to grow the plants directly in the cleanroom itself. Clearly this was a ‘thinking outside the box’ concept that would elevate the cultivation of the plant to a previously unattainable level. The use of the same contamination-control techniques currently applied to the production of pharmaceuticals, micro-electronics, optics and automotive components would facilitate the creation of a truly organic product, one that was at the same time the cleanest, purest, and most expensive (and therefore lucrative) it could be.
We have yet to see how this bold concept would play out. Although legal within some states, it is worth remembering that cannabis products are still classified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as Schedule I substances and remain illegal at the federal level. And as the pot dispensaries in California know to their cost, federal jurisdiction can sometimes trump state law.(11) But as the pace of demand for medical marijuana accelerates and public understanding of treatment options grows, the concept of a cleanroom-grown product is not wholly without merit.
Are we standing on the brink of a 21st century pot revolution? Is a high-tech cleanroom the right environment for cannabis production? We’d love to now your thoughts on this controversial subject. Just log them in the comments section below!