Montana Cannabis Providers Worry Testing Costs Will Bolster Black Market

Photo Credit: Thom Bridge

Medical marijuana providers and the owners of testing labs clashed over the cost to complete the testing required by state law at the Montana Cannabis Conference Friday in Helena.

Held in the state Capitol building, the conference consisted of panels to help patients and providers understand new regulations on the testing, manufacturing and taxing of medical marijuana since the Medical Marijuana Act passed during the 2017 legislative session.

Ron Brost of Stillwater Labs and Tyler Smith of White Buffalo Laboratories told providers they expect it to cost anywhere from $400 to $700 to test a five-pound batch of medical marijuana, or $7 to $12 per ounce. Some providers said the high cost of testing would price an edible cookie at $15 or encourage people to keep buying their product illegally, which would defeat the purpose of testing.

“We’re definitely not in the business to put you out of business,” Brost said. “It’s not going to be for free.”

But Smith said testing labs are estimating costs on rules that haven’t been finalized. On Friday the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services posted the final version of state rules, which are set to go into effect April 10 after a public comment period. The rules posted Friday show the department made some changes due to concerns about testing. A response from the department said it decreased the number of required pesticides for testing and to allow random testing of heavy metals instead of each batch.

“The reduced testing requirements will decrease the cost burden to small providers and still provide safe medicine for patients,” the department’s response said.

Because the rule changes were posted the same day of the panel, it’s unclear if the changes will decrease the cost estimated by Brost and Smith.

Smith said the testing labs are also figuring out what equipment is needed to perform testing and how to avoid a backlog due to demand or something temporary like broken equipment.

“Let’s all work together and be patient with one another as we get through this,” he said.

Brost said there have been small victories from testing since labs opened in Montana. Different strains of CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, are good for different symptoms or illnesses. But when he started testing in Montana, providers weren’t always sure what they were growing. Testing helped them tweak and create diverse strains. Patients also have a better chance of trying a product that works for them right away, Brost said.

During a panel on taxes and economic development, Gene Walborn, deputy director at the Department of Revenue, said the first two quarters of tax collection are in line with the state’s estimate of $1.4 million.

Other panels covered patient access, marijuana infused products and compliance with local, state and federal law.