A Missouri doctor questions the safety of marijuana in Washington state’s pot system. But labs and the state agency that regulates pot question his findings and tactics.
Seated at a desk inside his downtown Seattle hotel room, Dr. Gil Mobley pulled out a sterile field surgery kit, snapped on latex gloves and pulled a mask over his face.
He carefully arranged his medical instruments, grabbed tweezers and went to work.
Mobley, 60, wasn’t performing hotel-room surgery. He and fellow medical-marijuana activist Brian Stone were carefully preparing two ounces of Blazin’s Grapefruit purchased that morning from Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop in Seattle’s Central District. The pot cost more than $700.
The room reeked when a hotel maid cracked the door and said, “housekeeping.” Mobley shooed her away.
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Mobley and Stone ground about half the golf-ball-size buds, then loaded three grams of powdered pot and three grams of fresh bud into 16 plastic vials.
Later that day, Mobley took his vials along with packages of marijuana concentrate to five Seattle-area labs. He took a slew of samples to Portland for pesticide testing later that week.
Convinced he’d find wide-ranging results, Mobley sought to discredit the Initiative 502 testing program.
“I have a hypothesis. It’s a gamble it will work out. We need consistent testing and to add pesticides” to current regulations for recreational marijuana, he said.
Weeks later, with the Legislature deep in debate over medical marijuana’s future, Mobley spearheaded a protest at Uncle Ike’s, claiming the Liquor Control Board (LCB) “is lying.” He also sent a letter to legislators with his claims.
It’s as much stunt as science, but the results of Mobley’s tests suggest he’s on to something: Potency tests aren’t precise. Results vary from lab to lab.
That’s not news to the LCB or the laboratories, who say the program is still developing. The LCB is not aware of any reports of harm caused by marijuana from the state system. Plus, testing medical marijuana has never been required nor regulated.
Depending on perspective, Mobley is either a noisy idealist sounding alarm about problems everyone already knows about to further his political agenda. Or, he’s a public-health champion looking out for pot users.
The results of Mobley’s tests, shared with The Seattle Times in their original form, showed inconsistency.
Of five samples of Blazin’s Grapefruit bud Mobley tested in state-sanctioned labs, one failed standards for yeast and mold contamination and another failed for having too much moisture.
Potency tests for total THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, ranged from about 17 to 23 percent. At the store, the label for the jar of Blazin’s Grapefruit reported about 22 percent total THC.
Results for the concentrate varied, too. Even though the concentrate all came from the same batch, three labs pegged it at about 60 percent total THC. One reported about 55 percent total THC. Another reported it about 85 percent.
No pesticides were detected in a variety of products Mobley took to Portland.
In an independent, blind analysis of Mobley’s potency results, Rodger Voelker, Ph.D, a lab director at OG Analytical, of Eugene, Ore., said the potency tests were “a little better than I expected” but still showed “unacceptable levels of variance.”
But Voelker cautioned against drawing conclusions from Mobley’s experiment. “We cannot actually attribute the variability we see in the data to the labs,” said Voelker.
Marijuana crops are not uniform. Without determining how much the sample naturally varies, Voelker said, it’s not possible to determine if the labs are off, or the product is.
“To put together a real (proficiency testing) study is a complicated process. There are very strict procedures to do that,” said Voelker.
Laboratory directors rejected Mobley’s experiment.
“It’s citizen science and it shouldn’t be respected,” said Michelle Sexton, the chief science officer at PhytaLab, one of the labs Mobley targeted.
“First of all, an experiment really shouldn’t have a predetermined outcome,” said Nick Mosely, the chief scientist at Confidence Analytics. “This guy had a conclusion before he did an experiment. It’s a piss-poor experiment right off the bat.”
The laboratories have been forthright about their industry’s problems.
Sexton said different labs use different methodologies, equipment and protocols, which could account for the varied results.
“And you’ve always got human error. Scientists themselves are not infallible,” she said.
They also question Mobley’s methods and agenda:
“As the primary consumer-safety element in this industry, I don’t think his best tactic is to point at (labs) as a failure,” said Mosely.
Mobley has stirred the pot before, and not just with marijuana.
Last October, when the Ebola scare was beginning to take hold nationally, Mobley walked through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport wearing a hazmat suit that read, “CDC is lying.”
He made international news.
Mobley, a physician who speaks with a smooth Southern drawl, said he was morally driven to demonstrate because he believed the Centers for Disease Control had fallen asleep at the wheel in dealing with the outbreak. “Sadly, I became FOX’s darling,” said Mobley, who sees himself as a “serial activist.”
“They call us the yellers and the smellers,” he said, describing the perception of his medical-marijuana activist friends. “I’m the former.”
Although he lives in Springfield, Mo., now, Mobley ran a Federal Way clinic catering to medical-marijuana patients earlier this decade. Along with Steve Sarich, whose controversial tactics earned him the title “Medical Marijuana’s Bad Boy” in a Seattle Weekly article, Mobley formed the backbone of opposition to the initiative to legalize marijuana. Sarich helped organize Mobley’s protest at Uncle Ike’s.
Mobley said he supports the idea of recreational pot and believes “marijuana is safer than alcohol” but fears “we’re setting people up for a Maureen Dowd experience” because test results are not precise.
He wants everyone to be able to grow their own pot and doesn’t believe the public is safe under current practices. “The lack of directives, regulation and monitoring is a joke,” Mobley wrote in an email. “And it’s a joke to imply the state-approved cannabis is safe because it’s ‘tested.’ ”
Mobley said medical-marijuana patients shouldn’t be under the state’s current testing regime.
That fight’s all but concluded. The governor last month signed Legislation to fold medical marijuana into the state system. The LCB, to be renamed the Liquor and Cannabis Board, is required to adopt standards for testing medical pot.
Patients will be allowed to grow their own marijuana, though potentially less than they were previously allowed.
Learning from scratch
The LCB is rather frank about the problems with its testing program.
Randy Simmons, the state’s marijuana project director, said federal prohibition puts the agency in a tricky spot. Most products are tested for consumer safety by the feds, he said.
That means unfamiliar state agencies have had to learn from scratch.
Moreover, the wider “scientific community doesn’t want to be involved in this” because of its legal status, said Simmons. “Right now, we don’t have assistance from the major research facilities and universities.”
“Things are moving slowly,” said Simmons. “This industry is in its infancy.”
Simmons said the agency plans to direct growers on how to take representative samples from their crop for testing. Soon, they won’t be able to select the cleanest, most potent buds, he said.
He also said the LCB recognizes that current labels convey an accuracy that the products can’t deliver. Simmons said the agency is considering presenting test results as a range. For example, labels might say 13.5-16.5 instead of 15 percent THC, he said.
The LCB is just getting a secret-shopping program, announced several months ago, off the ground. The state Department of Agriculture soon will begin testing marijuana purchased off store shelves by enforcement officers.
Marijuana enforcement officers have found some companies skirting the rules. At least five growers have been cited for “using unauthorized pesticides, soil amendments, fertilizers, other crop production aids,” according to LCB records.
The agency is not testing for pesticides, but says it is working on protocols to do that.
Still, focusing on the recreational industry’s problems seems misguided to Simmons when patients are purchasing unregulated products from medical-marijuana dispensaries.
“I’m not sure how he (Mobley) thinks the product out there is safe on the medical side right now,” said Simmons.
Mobley said he’s mostly upset with how he hears politicians and industry leaders present the issue.
“Recreational is being held out … as tested and safe,” said Mobley. “Medical isn’t.”
Chants and confusion
Not one for subtlety, Mobley wore a hazmat suit and goggles to Uncle Ike’s for his protest of testing regulations, just as he’d done for Ebola.
“Pesticides, fungicides we don’t know. How could Olympia stoop so low,” chanted about 12 medical-marijuana activists he’d organized.
But the protest might have missed its mark. One bemused passer-by tweeted: “Why are there angry Devo fans outside Uncle Ike’s Pot Shop?”
The owner of Uncle Ike’s, whose store was picketed by a nearby church last year, didn’t understand either.
“At least our other protesters had God on their side. These guys had nothing,” said Ian Eisenberg. “Most of the customers at this point understand our pot is tested and maybe tests aren’t perfect … but it’s better than nothing.”