Why medical marijuana testing is big business in Michigan

Putting pot to the test.

Jun 2, 2014 at 7:08 pm

The managers at Iron Laboratories LLC seemed a bit anxious when I visited their facility on Maple Road in Walled Lake. They’re wary of how they’re portrayed in the media.

“We wouldn’t have done this one year ago,” says CEO Robert Teitel. “Now it’s time.”

That wariness comes from the fact that their business is testing medical marijuana. Marijuana is, shall we say, a testy business in Michigan right now. Since the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA) was passed in 2008, marijuana businesses have often been on shaky ground due to continuing attitudes against them. The legislation has been interpreted unevenly by various local governments and law enforcement agencies. There are places, such as Washtenaw County, that have taken a gentler attitude toward what will be tolerated, and other places, such as Oakland County, that have taken a tougher stance. 

Iron Laboratories is located in Oakland County, so the founding partners, Teitel and CFO Howard Lutz, are understandably trying to toe the line and do things in a manner that won’t cause trouble. They seem very concerned that things are done correctly when it comes to medical marijuana. As one faction of medical marijuana advocates says, if it’s going to be medical, let’s make it medical. That means marijuana free of pesticides, fungi, and other contaminants. It also means knowing the levels of cannabinoids such as THC and CBD in any product, and being consistent with those levels. 

That’s where Iron Labs fits in. They’re concerned with the credibility of the industry and seem to have built a wall between themselves and anything to do with promoting recreational use. 

“We want to fill in the gaps between what is known and what is myth,” says Lutz. “Since Sanjay Gupta said that CBD is helping people, it has exploded. Parents of sick children are calling, saying they got something that’s supposed to have CBD and they want to verify that it’s actually what they’ve been told.”

That’s one of the reasons that “it’s time” for them to be more public. There are people peddling what they call high-CBD, non-psychotropic hemp, but in a sometimes-underground industry, nobody knows for sure what they might be getting. And some people are making claims that just aren’t true.

“Some parents of sick children have expectations that aren’t going to ever be met,” Teitel says.

Iron Labs has been in business three years under fluctuating legal conditions as various legal rulings redefine the playing field. Not that they’ve been hiding. They depend on the public in order to do business, with some 600 clients, including individuals, caretakers, compassion clubs, and other places that supply medical marijuana to patients. It’s a membership organization with a $175 lifetime membership fee. That fee includes two sample tests; further tests have a lower additional charge. The membership model is what most organizations doing business with medical marijuana in Michigan follow.

Iron Labs makes no claim about the efficacy of medical marijuana — “We’re not doctors,” says Lutz — but they want to deliver accurate results to caregivers and patients seeking information about what they have. They test buds, edibles, liquids, infused products, pretty much every method people use to deliver an effective dose of medication. It takes up to a gram of material to get an accurate test.

It can be very important when it comes to edibles and infused products. There have been cases in Michigan in which patients were charged with possession of more than the legal amount of marijuana because the total weight of their brownies, cookies, etc., exceeded the limit. Law enforcement has even claimed that they can’t tell how much plant material or THC is in it. 

“Of course we can,” Lutz says. Iron Labs can indeed test and provide documentation of those levels.

Marijuana, of course, does have medical uses. Even in Colorado, where recreational use became legal on Jan. 1, the sale of medical marijuana has so far outpaced that of recreational, and “marijuana refugees” have moved to the state in order to have access to it. 

Nationally, medical marijuana is big business, and the guys at Iron Labs have even considered adding locations in other states.

They’re businessmen, although the five folks who do the actual analysis of materials are chemists and biologists. Each of them is also a legal caretaker or patient. Teitel and Lutz, who have been friends since childhood, speak in terms of being employers and stopping the brain drain of young educated people from the state. They say they get résumés from new college grads all the time. 

The science and technical staff does have a just-out-of-college look — they’re young, a couple of them sporting dreadlocks and tats as they quietly go about their liquid and gas chromatography or other analysis on expensive lab equipment.

Nobody here is taking a big draw on a blunt and declaring it “good shit.” And this business has no interest in cultivation or distribution of the product. Even the name of the company was chosen to avoid interpretation of any kind of stoner image. The name “Iron” is to imply that you get ironclad results.

Lutz used to work for the Lutz News Company, a newspaper distribution business started by his grandfather in 1937. After 71 years, Lutz shut down in 2008 due to the shrinking industry. He had a distribution relationship with Metro Times in the 1990s, when it was sold in Flint. But he still has that urge to employ family. His son, a biochemistry student at Michigan State University, also works at Iron Labs. 

As the public becomes more knowledgeable about marijuana, the folks at Iron Labs want to be part of meeting the challenge. They even provide terpene profiles of bud samples. Terpenes give the odor and some taste to marijuana and contribute to the overall effect. Terpenes put the lemon in Lemon Diesel and the strawberry in Strawberry Cough. Some repel fungus or insects. Some terpenes even dilate capillaries in the lungs, helping the THC to enter the bloodstream.

The marijuana world is changing fast as we learn more about what’s in it and how it affects us. Iron Labs is trying to help sort out what’s in your medical product, and the people there hope their results are indeed ironclad.

Medical marijuana got another boost last week when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to block the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration from using taxpayer funds to go after medical marijuana operations that are legal under state law. It’s not a momentous occasion, but it is symbolically important and it does make a difference. The funding amendment still has to go to the Senate, and it’s not clear how the agencies will interpret that. Still, Congress has never gone this far.

In Michigan, state Attorney General Bill Schuette has operated from the position that, despite the MMMA, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. He’s gone so far as threatening to charge law enforcement officers with delivery of drugs if they return confiscated marijuana to certified patients and caregivers, as they’re instructed to do under the MMMA. 

Also, many law enforcement raids on medical marijuana facilities have had the veneer of federal enforcement because one federal agent is present or a state policeman gets temporarily sworn in as a federal officer. I guess that can still happen, but it shows that the foundation of Schuette’s position is becoming less tenable.