How Clean is Your Cannabis?: A conversation with Cannalytics RI

With the evolving state of legal cannabis, it can be hard to keep track of the ever-changing regulations (even if it’s part of your job!), especially when it comes to testing requirements for cannabis products. Comprehensive testing requirements are essential to ensuring the quality and safety of a product intended to supply patients – many of whom are dealing with compromised immune systems, cancer, and other serious conditions – with the medicine they need to live. It is wild to imagine that potency and contamination testing would be treated as an afterthought, as it has been here in RI. Even as someone who closely follows cannabis industry and policy news, I wanted a refresher on the current status of state regulations for lab testing for cannabis. That is how I found myself in West Warwick on a typical damp and gray April day, where I stopped by RI’s newest state-licensed cannabis testing facility to see how the industry looks through the lab microscope – er, lens.

Cannalytics RI is tucked into a nondescript shopping plaza along the banks of the Pawtuxet River, and at first glance you may not realize that a state-of-the-art cannabis laboratory has made its home there – especially if, like me, you are slightly distracted by the independent donut shop that exists there as well. “Homemade Donuts” reads the sign most visible as you enter the plaza, the letters brightly colored in yellow and blue — a branding choice made in defiance of their pink and orange corporate counterpart, I am sure. I parked in front of the Family Dollar and made my way to the corner unit, where I found the door locked (as it always is, for security purposes). I rang the doorbell, and through the large windows I could see co-owner Mike Pytell emerge from behind a high tech instrument (a High Performance Liquid Chromatography-Photodiode Array Detection machine, I later learned) to let me into the bright and open lab space, which is surprisingly aesthetic in decor. 

I met Pytell and co-owner Tanya Luongo a couple of years ago at another lab, and I had been excited to learn that they had struck out on their own to open a new facility in RI earlier this year. Their combined thirty years of scientific experience, infused with a passion for plant medicine, led to a perfect fit in the marijuana testing industry. At the cannabis lab where they started together (and where I met them originally), Luongo and Pytell spent a full year developing extensive laboratory methods, procedures and manuals that resulted in the successful state licensure of one of only two cannabis labs in the state of RI at the time. In addition to navigating the challenges of obtaining state licensure, their professional backgrounds in various chemical industries gave them the skills to develop testing procedures and analysis methods not yet used by any cannabis laboratory in RI, such as low-level beverage extraction procedures and analysis methods.

“Cannalytics RI was born not only from a desire to provide lab services to the cannabis community, but to assist with regulation guidance and implementation as well,” Pytell explained when I asked why they wanted to start their own lab. “When Tanya and I met upon entering the confusing world of RI cannabis, it was quite obvious that the lab sector was rather underwhelming, and was screaming for reinforcement.” Dissatisfied with the state of the testing industry at the time, especially the “horribly underqualified” cannabis lab where they had met and worked together, Luongo and Pytell opened Cannalytics RI “to carry on our hard work, and to provide the community with a lab they can trust. The ability to control our own lab top to bottom is crucial; it’s how we are able to truly deliver the integrity and due diligence that our clients rightfully deserve.”

Despite its relative maturity, Pytell and Luongo felt that the RI cannabis industry was still underdeveloped, and there was a clear need for accurate, responsible and accessible lab services. “It’s kind of sad that we’re only at where we are, in 2022,” Pytell said about the RI cannabis industry.

Let’s look at where we came from, where we’re at and what lies ahead when it comes to regulating cannabis product safety in our state.

Medical marijuana was legalized in RI in 2006, and our first compassion center opened its doors in 2013. Would you believe that the state did not require third-party potency analysis on cannabis flower being sold to patients until JANUARY 14, 2021?! What about contamination by mold, heavy metals, and pesticides? It would be extremely dangerous to sell potentially contaminated medicine to sick patients, so the state must have had strict requirements when it came to testing for those components, right? WRONG! I hate to break it to you, but medical marijuana was not required to be tested for mold until March of 2021 (see, Jan 2021), and heavy metal regulations followed in December of 2021, just a few months ago. Worse, there are STILL no regulations requiring pesticide and residual solvent analysis, and not even potency testing is required for edibles and other infused products sold at compassion centers. “I talk to cultivators who still don’t know that edible testing is not required,” Pytell tells me, his facial expression disclosing a combination of disbelief and resignation that has become quite common in the RI cannabis community. 

Without a requirement for even the most basic potency analysis – essential for accurate labeling and dosing — the only parties responsible for testing products and reporting results to consumers were the compassion centers themselves, with virtually no oversight or laboratory license requirements until 2021. As both producers and retailers, the vertically integrated dispensaries are incentivised to provide only the best results to patients, though I highly doubt that they were conducting internal contamination testing. They most likely knew the results would not be favorable for them, as even average consumers like myself have been aware of alleged improper pesticide use and issues with aging, moldy cultivation facilities for many years.

“How much untested or contaminated product was sold to unwitting patients in those years?” Pytell asked, a question that has echoed across the medical marijuana space for years. Patients and advocates have been raising the alarm about this issue for some time, and many still choose to rely on home-grow or a caregiver to provide them with safe cannabis for their condition. “The question is, what is medical cannabis to you? [In my opinion] it has to be clean – it’s contradictory to sell someone a mold-covered bud when you’re talking about medicine.”

Regulations aren’t the only challenge facing the cannabis lab industry, though, according to Pytell and Luongo. “The RI market seems to be seriously suffering from a lack of sales,” which they and others attribute to several factors. A major factor is decreased demand from patients, especially as neighboring states legalize cannabis. With such a huge array of high quality (and actually tested!) cannabis products available at nearby adult use dispensaries – many of which are located closer to many RI patients than our own state’s compassion centers — you don’t need to be an economist to understand how supply and demand works, or to predict this type of basic consumer response to market changes. In fact, advocates have been warning lawmakers of this exact scenario for years, encouraging our state to legalize cannabis for adult use in a timely fashion, lest the hard-earned coin of Rhode Islanders be swallowed up by the tax coffers of other states.

Add oversupply to an already decreased demand, and the situation only gets worse. Since 2017, the state has issued 68 cannabis cultivator licenses in an effort to gain more control over medical cannabis production in RI, replacing the caregiver-based model that our medical marijuana program initially relied on. This influx of licensed growers was meant to supply an expanded medical program and potential adult use market, or so we thought. Significant delays in the licensing of six new compassion centers and approval of adult-use legalization has created a situation that is increasingly untenable for both cultivator and laboratory licensees. With cultivators operating at half capacity and no one to sell their product to, “it introduces a sense of desperation,” Pytell said. “What are people supposed to do?” Even in the last year, the price for a pound of cannabis flower has reportedly been cut in half, with cultivators being forced to sell at whatever price the market demands. And with the “market” still tightly held in the political grip of “The Big Three” compassion centers, it is the small business owners and other cannabis license holders that have suffered the consequences.

Luongo and Pytell had hoped that when the six new dispensaries open doors, the improved access to medicine in our state would lead to increased demand among their clients, most of whom are licensed cultivators, and that would in turn lead to better business for every one in the industry. But it’s hard to be optimistic with the regulatory track record RI has, and although there will be a two-year moratorium on issuing new cultivator licenses, that may not help much if all six new compassion centers end up sourcing much of their product from cultivators that may be “laterally-integrated” with the retail license holders, Pytell says. “If the new facilities are able to grow their own medicine, it could exacerbate the supply issues we already face…you’re going to have nine dispensaries that are self-sufficient, and a lot of cultivators still left with nowhere to sell – which begs the question of ‘Why?!’” 

To answer that question, I did some quick math — at around $20,000 per license per year, the state of RI is most likely bringing in over one million dollars in cultivator licensing fees alone, let alone the new compassion centers, labs, and existing dispensary fees. “It’s not even about the patients anymore, it’s all about the money,” Pytell says. Meanwhile, the state is rolling out more testing requirements, which is great, but means that the labs, much like cultivators, are forced to invest in expensive specialized equipment and instruments, which often run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, just to ensure that they are calibrated and ready to support the market once those testing regulations do become law.

Still, Luongo and Pytell are glad to be here. “In many ways, I do feel the industry here is still in its infancy and needs to be nurtured. However, we are a small state that has great potential, as there is a tight-knit group of talented licensed growers and extractors’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.” As I left the lab that day, I couldn’t help but notice the Douglas Adams quote emblazoned in gold letters against a navy blue accent wall, surrounded by golden molecules of cannabinoids and other chemical compounds: “To give real service, you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money. And that is sincerity and integrity” – two things we could certainly use more of here in the RI cannabis industry.