Gary Ward, administrator of the Oregon Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program, detailed the crisis facing the agency in a memo sent last week to the health authority. The accreditation program is a division of the health authority.
He said his agency, which also accredits labs that test drinking water, was initially assured resources to implement state-mandated cannabis testing accreditation, but "so far we have received zero" support from the health authority.
The staffing shortage has potentially dire implications for the state's marijuana industry. Starting Oct. 1, new products headed to marijuana dispensary shelves will have to undergo a battery of tests at accredited labs. Those tests will assess potency and look for biological contaminants such as E. coli, residual solvents from the extraction process used to make oil, and dozens of pesticides.
The policy shift transforms Oregon's marijuana labs from an unregulated cottage industry into a central part of the state's regulated market. The state's new testing standards are intended to address pesticide contamination, which remains a concern in Oregon and in other states with legal pot markets. The slow pace of lab accreditation means consumers may see fewer products on store shelves when the state rolls out its recreational marijuana market next month.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday issued a statement saying the governor views accredited labs "as important to ensuring public health and safety as Oregon's new recreational marijuana laws are implemented." Melissa Navas, Brown's spokeswoman, said the health authority "is taking steps" to address the problem "with additional resources," though she did not detail them. Steve Marks, executive director of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the agency that regulates marijuana, called the accrediting program a "critical point" in the state's new industry.
"We have to be concerned about it," he said, adding that hiring new staff to do such technical work will take time. "There is no quick fix to this." Ward warned that all work on marijuana lab accreditation -- as well as the agency's work on drinking water -- will come to a halt without additional resources. "We are on the precipice of collapse of environmental, drinking water and cannabis accreditation because of the lack of resources," he wrote.
The accrediting program is part of the health authority's Oregon State Public Health Laboratory. The division accredits labs that do environmental and water quality testing, as well as air toxics and industrial waste. It works with labs in more than a dozen states and three countries. Last year the program was assigned to accredit marijuana labs.
On Tuesday, after The Oregonian/OregonLive reported on Ward's memo, the agency issued a statement saying it's "committed to taking steps to ensure environmental laboratory accreditation even with growing demand." The agency said it "will find a solution to the challenges that the short-term increase in cannabis testing lab requests has caused."
The crisis facing the agency could have far-reaching consequences not just for Oregon's marijuana industry but for drinking water testing. Ward notes that the agency must assess 17 drinking water labs by January 2017 "or their accreditation will expire and drinking water testing will stop at those labs."
"The public health will be in jeopardy from potential drinking water problems and contaminated cannabis," he wrote.
Ward wrote that his agency previously had support from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality but "recent cadmium air toxics and lead events" in Portland have "curbed their ability to spare" staff time to help.
Marijuana industry representatives said they're alarmed by the state's slow pace at accrediting and approving labs, a situation they fear will lead to large stockpiles of marijuana waiting to be tested. Beau Whitney, an economist and executive at Golden Leaf Holdings, a company that grows, processes and sells marijuana, worries producers will face a long wait to get their product into the legal market. "It limits the ability of the market to grow," he said.
So far only two labs have been accredited and licensed by the state. Advocates for the industry say that's not enough to process the volume of marijuana being grown for the regulated market. Amy Margolis, an attorney who represents marijuana businesses, said without additional accredited labs, the industry's viability is threatened. "Put aside the fact that we are also talking about drinking water," she said. "If they don't get funding and resources, the entire industry will come to a full stop."
Rodger Voelker, lab director at OG Analytical in Eugene, said staff from the accrediting program spent two days in his lab, reviewing his equipment, protocols and expertise. That on-site review came after the division reviewed hundreds of pages of documents detailing how the lab operates. The lab received its accreditation last week. "There is no way they can run the program the way that they need to and strive to with limited resources," Voelker said.
It's clear from Ward's memo that the task of accrediting cannabis labs is an enormous and complicated one. He said many labs waited until July to apply for accreditation, leaving just two months to do the work. "Many of the cannabis labs need significant work," he wrote, adding that much of the work that's being done in labs is "inaccurate." For instance, he wrote that labs are turning out negative results for pesticides in tainted samples. He said his agency will have to audit labs another two to three times in the next eight months.
"We cannot get it done with current resources," he wrote. "Our work involved so much attention to technical detail that rushing or overloading, in and of itself, reduces the value of our program to the labs and Oregon's reputation as a whole. This will be especially true," he continued, "if we lose assessors or myself as the program manager due to the extreme working conditions we face."
By Noel Crombie - The Oregonian/Sept. 6, 2016
Photo: Beth Nakamura, oregonian
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Agency that Oversees Oregon Pot Labs on Verge of Collapse