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Cannabis Testing Labs Feel Squeeze From Mass. Communities

A lack of independent testing laboratories is being blamed in part for the slow roll-out of adult-use, or recreational, marijuana in Massachusetts.

But the founder of one of the labs that has been providing testing for the state's medical marijuana market pushed back Monday against the criticism.

"We have been given no guidance as far as what is different between medical marijuana testing and recreational marijuana testing," said Christopher Hudalla, who's also chief scientific officer of ProVerde Laboratories in Milford. "I’m surprised when we’re given very poor guidance that all of a sudden that they’re saying it’s the laboratories who are the holdup on this."

Pro Verde has been providing testing for medical marijuana dispensaries for five years. Hudalla says the company has not yet decided whether it'll apply for a recreational testing license from the Cannabis Control Commission, in part due to uncertainty over a community host agreement (CHA), which is required by law and must be reached with the municipality in which the lab operates before a license is awarded.

Several cannabis-related businesses have accused towns and cities of using the CHAs to squeeze additional funds and perks for the communities.

"Analytical testing is not a high margin activity,” Hudalla said. “I know in the past some community host agreements have been fairly costly to an organization."

Hudalla questioned why analytical laboratories that test other materials -- but not cannabis — are free to operate without needing to obtain a CHA. The commission has taken a hands-off approach to CHAs, leaving it up to the applicants and the municipalities to work out the details, and requiring only confirmation that a CHA has been reached be submitted as part of the license application.

Still, the cannabis commission is hopeful that independent laboratories will apply for licenses, and the commission last month voted to put labs that apply at the head of the line for license approval.

"The lab part of this will be resolved in time,” said Chairman Steven Hoffman, following a meeting Monday in which the commission approved three provisional licenses, including the first license for an adult-use cannabis retail store.

Hoffman rejected any notion that the commission will waive regulations to allow labs that are currently licensed by the Department of Public Health to test cannabis for the state’s medical marijuana program, to test for recreational as well.

"They are the same labs, they need to get a license from the commission, but hopefully it’s a pretty straightforward process because they are the same requirements with respect to inspection," Hoffman said. "We’re hoping that once we issue -- if and when we issue a provisional license application -- we can go through the process from provisional to final very quickly."

The commission is currently awarding provisional licenses to applicants, which must then have company owners subject themselves to fingerprinting, be checked against a criminal database, and allow final inspections of their premises by commission staff. The laboratories will have to undergo the same steps as other cannabis businesses before they are awarded a final license to operate.

Even as the commission is beginning to approve provisional licenses for cultivators, cannabis product manufacturers and retail shops, retail sales cannot be made until an independent testing lab is licensed.

The head of the dispensary awarded the first provisional retail license is taking the delay in stride.

“I’d rather have the program done in the right way and everyone feels comfortable with it,” said Sam Barber of Cultivate Holdings, of Leicester. “I do feel that we are close, and with the lab testing and a few of the other issues like seed to sale tracking, I think it should be very shortly."

For more updates on the industry, join our Facebook group, Green Rush: Cannabis in Massachusetts.

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Steve Brown Twitter Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's State House reporter.

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