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Pot dispensaries, growers seek lab testing change

Medical marijuana dispensaries and growers are pushing the state to change regulations in a way that could sharply lower the costs of lab safety testing.

Regulations require a sample to be tested from each 5-pound batch of marijuana before any of it is sold. Independent state-certified laboratories check the samples for pesticides, toxins and microbes, among other contaminants.

In a recent letter to a top state official, the Nevada Dispensary Association said the 5-pound rule drives up the cost of marijuana significantly.

But the math suggests otherwise. Given the prices charged for marijuana and the tiny quantities sold to each patient, lab testing makes up about 3 percent — or less — of what patients pay.

Prices for lab tests vary, but they often range between $700 and $1,000 per batch.

“The NDA feels that these fees are prohibitively high and ultimately increase the costs of medical marijuana to the patient, to such an extent that many patients may not be able to afford their doctor-recommended medication for the treatment of a serious condition,” Riana Durrett, executive director of the dispensary group, wrote in a letter to state health official Laura Freed.

Dispensaries in Clark County are selling a gram of marijuana for $16 to $20 and a quarter-ounce for about $100. That means a dispensary can sell 5 pounds for more than $32,000.

If a grower paid $1,000 to have a 5-pound batch approved, the lab tests would add just $3 to the cost of a quarter ounce — or less than 50 cents to the cost of a gram.

Durrett’s letter called the 5-pound rule arbitrary and argued the state should instead require testing only on each “propagation batch.” A batch would be defined as “seeds or clones of a unique strain that are propagated during a single day.”

Under that standard, a batch could theoretically be any size, even hundreds of pounds or more.

The state has not made any decision about changing the marijuana testing standard. Such changes to state regulations — officially called the Nevada Administrative Code — can happen only after public notice and a public hearing.

Durrett said cost wasn’t the primary motivation for asking for the change. She said the dispensaries want a standard that is based on science and hope to start a conversation with scientists and state officials.

Durrett said the state urged her to talk about possible changes with James Dean Leavitt, president of the Nevada Cannabis Laboratory Association.

Leavitt said the cost of lab testing is “insignificant” compared to the overall costs of growing marijuana.

Leavitt said he would be open to increasing the size of a batch if scientific evidence showed it was warranted. But he said it’s too early to know and the state should make no changes until labs have been doing tests long enough to collect a lot of data.

David Goldwater, one of the owners of the Las Vegas-area dispensary Inyo Fine Cannabis, said growers are also pushing to change the 5-pound rule.

“The cultivators are telling us, ‘Hey, this is costing us a fortune and it doesn’t make any sense,’ ” Goldwater said.

He added: “Every little bit of regulatory requirement adds cost ultimately to the patient.”

Durrett’s letter said that, while dispensaries agree testing standards keep patients safe, there’s no evidence the 5-pound rule is the safest one.

Leavitt said growers’ push to save money on lab tests could ironically increase their financial risk.

If a sample fails tests, the 5-pound batch from which it came must be destroyed. But if a sample from a much larger batch failed, a grower could be forced to destroy hundreds of pounds of marijuana, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.

Contact Eric Hartley at ehartley@reviewjournal.com or 702-550-9229. Find him on Twitter: @ethartley.

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