Taking the Mystery out of Marijuana

When Dean Folda goes to pick up his medicine, he has a choice between cannabis products with names like “Grunk,” “Johnny Rocket,” and “Godbud.”
Folda, 47, says marijuana helps relieve his pain. He’s had a myriad of health issues over the years, ranging from an accidental gunshot wound when he was 10 years old to a hole in his aorta that required two open-heart surgeries.
“I could’ve probably been the biggest pillhead in the valley,” he said. “But I’ve found that marijuana did the same thing for me that the pain pills would do without the side effects.”
Folda isn’t sure just how or why marijuana works for him.
But a doctor and a chemist in Bozeman are aiming to take the mystery out of it.
Dr. Michael Geci-Black, a former emergency room physician, and Noel Palmer, who has a PhD in chemistry, run the first laboratory in Montana dedicated to studying medical cannabis, Montana Botanical Analysis.
“If it’s going to be a medicine, you’ve got to treat it like a medicine,” said Geci-Black, who started the lab in 2009. “So, I thought, ‘We’ve got to do some testing to see what’s in it.’ There’s no other medicine that doesn’t have the active ingredients (listed) on it.”
Even marijuana providers, or “caregivers,” aren’t always sure why certain strains of marijuana work particularly well for treating certain kinds of ailments.
A Kinder Caregiver in Bozeman, for example, sells 27 strains of marijuana in its plant form. It also has a menu that includes 16 baked “sweet treats,” plus four diabetic alternatives; two tinctures of liquid cannabis; one tea; and baking basics “cannabutter,” “cannaoil,” “ganja cream,” and “sweet leaf honey.”
But the head of the company, Robert Carpenter, admits determining what works best for a specific person is mostly a matter of trial and error.
“It differs so much for each person,” he said.
Marijuana providers from across the state pay Montana Botanical Analysis to test “cannabinoids,” chemical compounds in their strains of marijuana, so they can have a better understanding of how to dispense it.
“If you don’t know what’s in it, how can you dose it?” Geci-Black said. “We’re trying to establish product labeling.”
The lab tests 20 to 50 different strains each week, he said. Testing takes about three days and costs about $100 per sample.
“I really feel like the science, it’s going to help clarify these ambiguities that everybody has,” Palmer said.
Not everyone wants high THC
On Thursday afternoon, Palmer held the dried tip of a marijuana plant in the palm of his hand, a sample a provider had given the lab to test. He was working in the MBA’s new lab and offices in the Medical Arts Building on North Willson Avenue, where the neighbors are family-practice doctors and dentists.
For a typical test, Palmer dries a raw marijuana plant bud, then puts it in an “extraction” liquid, where it dissolves it into a lime green solution.
He puts a few drops of the solution in a vile, and puts the vile in a 3-foot tall stack of automated machines. The machines run the solution through a series of tubes and beakers, with the results displayed on a computer monitor.
The process, called chromatography, isolates cannabinoids found in the crystals on the edges of the marijuana leaves.
For the “OG Kush” strain, a line graph on the computer screen showed levels of about 25 different cannabinoids, primarily tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN).
A total of about 66 cannabinoids are believed to be present in cannabis plants, Palmer said.
“That’s why we’re interested — because THC is not the only one,” he said. “Patients tend to like lower THC and that often has other cannabinoids in higher levels.”
Cannabidiol, for example is not psychoactive, Palmer said, meaning it tends to relieve pain without getting the user “stoned.”
But it’s hard to find CBD in marijuana in Montana.
“It’s been an arms race for THC,” which is believed to produce the “high,”
Palmer said. “People have all but bred out CBD from cannabis samples.”
Some providers simply tout THC levels in their products, Geci-Black said. They don’t realize the chemical could have unintended side effects. People are making shampoos and soaps, he said, but THC may actually stymie hair growth.
“There’s one guy in town, he has lip balm that has like 13 percent THC in it,” Geci-Black said.
Even the most potent marijuana usually has no more than 20 percent THC.
What about a pill?
In Colorado, marijuana providers put cards detailing test results from labs like Geci-Black’s next to each strain in their display cases.
Frank Quattrone, owner of Pure Medical Dispensary in Denver, told the Denver Post earlier this month that he hopes the black-market names of marijuana strains “hopefully, will be come irrelevant.”
With knowledge about the chemical makeup of different marijuana, a provider could tell a patient with irritable bowel syndrome, for example, to eat a marijuana high in CBD, Geci-Black said. That could send pain relief directly to the digestive tract where it’s needed and allow them to function normally without having to be high, he said.
Or, if a patient has knee pain, Geci-Black said the provider could suggest they get a salve and apply that directly to the joint.
The possibilities beg the question: Will there come a time when patients don’t need to smoke marijuana? When chemical components will be extracted from it in some other more socially accepted form, like a pill?
Drug companies have already created synthetic marijuana in pill forms, like the drug Marinol.
“Anybody who argues against the medicinal effect of cannabis is just – with all due respect – uninformed,” Geci-Black said.
Geci-Black, who began practicing alternative medicine in 2007 and lives part time on an organic farm in upstate New York, said he’s gotten calls from people in half of the 14 states where medical marijuana is legal asking him for information about the lab.
Recently, he was a keynote speaker at a conference in Humbolt County, Calif.
In addition to testing for medicinal properties, the lab can test for mold and pesticides, so patients can tell if they’re marijuana is safe or organically grown.
“There’s a myriad of applications for this that are exciting,” Geci-Black said. “We’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg right now.”