High Standards

Behind a nondescript door in a West Eugene industrial park, Rodger Voelker, PhD ’96, pours a fresh cup of coffee. The pungent smell of cannabis gives way to the aroma of the roasted beans. He takes a sip. “I’ve been interested in the issue of food safety for years now,” he says. Sporting a white lab coat, a pocket protector with pens, and salt-and-pepper hair, Voelker looks the part of the archetypal scientist. “I’ve always been a nerd,” he says. A nerd who was never interested in marijuana, he makes sure to add. In fact, he voted against legalizing medical marijuana in Oregon. An analytical chemist, Voelker earned his doctorate in molecular biology, with his research focused on computational biology and genomics. Later, he worked as the supervising chemist at the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s pesticide residue laboratory. As lab director of Oregon Growers Analytical, Voelker is entering the once-underground world of marijuana, taking on the challenges of Oregon’s negligible marijuana safety regulations and the particular difficulties of cannabis chemistry.

OG Analytical provides marijuana growers and dispensaries mold, pesticide, and potency-testing services for their cannabis products. Once tested, they can then be labeled with essential consumer information (such as active-ingredient levels), and samples that test positive for molds or pesticides can be kept out of patients’ hands. Oregon House Bill 3460, which took effect in March, mandates that medical marijuana in Oregon must be tested for harmful substances, but provides for little state oversight, regulation, or enforcement. Voelker is trying to address that.

Voelker’s lab offers the 59,000 or so registered patients of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP) a way to know what’s in their medicine. Voelker suspends the marijuana in solution and uses chromatography and mass spectrometry to measure its molecular pieces. Through statistical methods, he can identify the quantities of ingredients in the sample. Voelker considers cannabis the most difficult product he’s ever worked with. Marijuana contains high enough levels of active ingredients to make results off-the-chart unreadable by the extremely sensitive lab instruments. “But that’s what humans have bred it for. They’re THC factories,” Voelker says.

US Food and Drug Administration protocols govern nearly every other ingestible product on the market, but the state does not apply FDA standards to the OMMP. “It’s really bizarre to me,” says Voelker, who believes the Oregon administrative rules governing OMMP testing for certain categories of pesticides to be substandard. He aims to match the more rigorous FDA standard.

He believes that applying FDA-approved methods and state oversight to the OMMP is critical for both patient safety and industry legitimacy. Most agricultural products, according to Voelker, test positive for pesticides about 0.1 percent of the time. For marijuana, it’s closer to 18 percent. “We’re talking about a pretty significant number,” he says. His lab has had positive hits for dichlorvos and malathion, two toxic pesticides not safe for human consumption. “It’s stuff that [marijuana growers] are not supposed to be using. But it’s clearly there.”

Unless Oregonians demand better safety standards, he says, nothing will change. “We’ve got a set of rules that need to be fixed. And what’s key to that is that the public plays a role. It’s for them that safety standards exist.” For now, the unlikely marijuana scientist, who entered the industry as an analytical chemistry expert and cannabis neophyte, is getting used to donning the gloves and testing samples in his aromatic lab. “I can’t even smell it anymore,” he says.

—By Gordon Friedman