Breaking down buds

Taking a scientific view of the herb's components

Stick your nose in the buds and smell the aroma. Look closely at the density of the crystals. Run your fingers through the vegetative matter and feel the resins stick to your skin. Crumble a bit, roll it into a joint, light it up and take a draw. Let the smoke roll around in your mouth a bit and savor the flavor on your tongue, gauge the smoothness as it slides down your throat and into your lungs. Hold it for a moment, then let it out slowly. After doing this a few times you stop and wait. Feel the high creep up on you. Or maybe it slams into the side of your head like a blizzard ripping across the landscape.

Finally give the evaluation, "Man, that's some good shit."

Or nothing of consequence happens. In that case the evaluation is, "That shit ain't shit."

Or you forget to say anything and fall asleep.

The process described above is the traditional method for analyzing the potency and effects of marijuana. And when it comes to medical marijuana, matching strains to pains has, out of necessity, been a trial-and-error affair. And though this tradition is honorable, it could be well on its way to being passé.

Not that an experienced smoker can't taste a sample and give you a pretty accurate description of a given bud's features. Wine and beer tasters are respected the world over for their palates and ability to analyze their drinks. But in the long run, any taster's evaluation has a level of subjectivity to it. In the world of medical marijuana one seeks more objective facts — particularly when it comes to figuring out dosages for medication.

Welcome to the world of chromatography.

Chromatography is the scientific process for separating and identifying components of a material. It's a step in the right direction in terms of having a better sense of how and what you're medicating with. Different labs use different methods. Herbal Elements Inc. (HBI), in Traverse City, uses a gas chromatograph. Cannalytics, in Lansing, uses a high-pressure liquid chromatograph. I can't tell you whether one process is better than the other, but they both get results. This equipment costs tens of thousands of dollars, so this isn't something you're going to keep at home.

"If you were somebody of a mind to drink alcohol, and you went to the store, and they had bottles that were just labeled as alcohol on the shelf that you don't know if it's whiskey or scotch or bourbon, or if it's 20 proof or 80 proof, that wouldn't work very well for you," says Steve Weber, co-owner of HBI. "Why would a cannabis patient walk in and not know what they're buying quality-wise? We give patients information so they can kind of streamline what kind of medication they're looking for. Also, for those who are distributing medication, this can justify the prices that they charge."

Critics of medical marijuana have been saying the same thing. How do you know what you're getting? What's the potency? How do you standardize doses? These are all good questions. And some people are working to find answers.

"There has been little information transparency for patients to know what they are putting into their bodies and make that info available so they can get safe and effective meds," says Zach Jarou, owner of Cannalytics. "Every other product that goes in or on our bodies is subject to safety screening, and medical cannabis should be no different."

Due to marijuana prohibition, it's illegal to even do scientific research using marijuana in the United States without government clearance — which skews it toward validating official policy. Luckily that's not the case everywhere, and a trove of information is out there for the intrepid searcher. But more needs to be done.

The emerging science on the active components of marijuana is very interesting, and it's promising for medical applications. We've known that the cannabinoid THC is the main psychoactive component in the plant. And for years, growers have bred it to enhance the levels of THC. That's where the market was. Now scientists are finding that other cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) have their own effects, and there may be as many as 100 of them that work together to create the total effect of marijuana. That's a far cry from isolating one element and creating a synthetic form of the drug such as Marinol. Marinol is the legal drug that is sometimes prescribed for cancer patients to dissipate the side effects of chemotheraphy.

"Half of what we do is education," says Christopher Breedlove, lab manager for Pure Medical Testing in Ann Arbor. "In certain states, like Colorado or California, there is a lot more knowledge. A lot of people don't know what cannabinoids are. They don't know about the endocannabinoid system. You can get something tested and, if you don't understand the numbers, it doesn't do you much good."

Weber reports that it takes about 1 gram of material to be able to test a sample of marijuana and have enough left over for a second test if necessary. The labs also test hashish, various butters, oils, tinctures and edibles. Results typically take from a few hours to two days. At this point, all of the labs mentioned only take samples from registered medical marijuana patients and caregivers.

In this new world of burgeoning medical marijuana facilities, everyone is looking to get a leg up on others. With laboratory testing, a compassion club can tout that what they have is good for your illness. HBI's website has a page with the results of their analyses. It shows the name of the strain, who had the analysis done, analysis date, whether it's sativa, indica or a mix, and the percentage of THC, CBD or CBN. It's organized by date, with the most recent product tested at the top of the list. There is also a link to a new source discussing what the effects of the different cannabinoids are.

For instance, there's something listed there called Purple Tangerines that was tested on June 22. Indica is its dominant strain and it has 13.2 percent THC, 0.2 percent CBD and 0.2 percent CBN.

Cannalytics' website organizes its results by category, such as concentrate, plant material, solid edibles, liquid edibles and topicals. Dates aren't listed on the first report page, but each listing has a PDF report with more information that gives the date. Pure Medicine Testing's web site was scheduled to go live the day this column is published, so I didn't get a chance to preview how it works. Although each lab will post results of all tests done, some clients might choose to not have their results listed for whatever reason. For instance, if they think the results show their medication to have a low potency, maybe they don't want that to be known.

These are the kinds of things we'll be seeing in the future as medical marijuana becomes more sophisticated and answers are developed for questions posed by patients and detractors. But like many other things in life, the proof is in the pudding. Analyze it and know what's in it, but there's probably no substitute for actually using it and figuring out what it does to you.

Herbal elements Inc. can be found at, Cannalytics at and Pure Medicine Testing