‘Building an Industry’: Medical Cannabis Investors Focus On Lab Testing For Patient Safety

Dr. Christian Rogers extracts cannabis samples to test and analyze microorganisms
Steep Hill Mississippi Microbial Scientist Dr. Christian Rogers extracts cannabis samples to test and analyze microorganisms, including aspergillus, salmonella and E. coli. Photo courtesy Stacey Pickering

Pharmacist Cliff Osbon of Madison became passionate about legalizing medical marijuana in Mississippi around six years ago when his mother, Joyce, had a terminal brain tumor and could not use cannabis to help alleviate her pain.

He recalled a conversation he and his brother, a pastor, had about marijuana when their mother was in the hospital. His brother asked if they could get their mother medical marijuana, and Osbon explained that they could not because it was illegal in Mississippi at the time—that their mother “just has to suffer” and not use cannabis to comply with the state’s laws.

“Well, that doesn’t seem right,” Osbon’s brother said, frustrated.

“It’s not right,” Obson replied. “It’s just the law, and the law is not always right.”

Their mother passed away months later, just five years shy of seeing Mississippi legalize medical marijuana for patients with certain qualifying conditions like terminal illnesses.

“It is horrible to watch someone, anyone, die suffering,” Osbon told the Mississippi Free Press. “It’s even worse when it’s someone you love.”

‘There Was An Unmet Need’

When voters passed Initiative 65 in 2020, Osbon jumped at the opportunity to open the first cannabis-testing facility in Mississippi.

After the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down Initiative 65 and the entire ballot initiative system in 2021, the Legislature passed and Gov. Tate Reeves signed the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act in 2022. The act created a new medical-marijuana program, albeit one that is more restrictive and allows fewer patients than the program voters passed. Over the past three years, cannabis investors worked to develop growing companies, dispensaries and testing labs.

Osbon is a co-founder and board member of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association and has been involved with the group since 2021. He organized a meeting in Jackson, Miss., about three years ago for investors and people who wanted to ensure safe medical marijuana was available for patients.

“There was an unmet need for testing,” he said.

At the same time, Mark and Leslie Henderson, who owned Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company until April 2023 when they passed the reins to Jason Anderson and Ryan Bowen, were gathering medical-marijuana investors on the coast. The two groups met and started looking into the cannabis-testing industry together, and they decided to open Steep Hill Mississippi in Jackson, a branch of the larger Steep Hill organization based in California that has locations across the U.S. and Canada.

Osbon and the Hendersons discovered Steep Hill, which was founded in 2007, and received a license to create the Mississippi branch, officially becoming the first cannabis-testing lab in the state. The parent organization provided the procedures and regulations the Mississippi location uses to test cannabis.

Cliff Osbon, co-founder and board member of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Foundation
Cliff Osbon of Madison, Miss., is the co-founder and board member of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Foundation. He is also a founder and investor of Steep Hill Mississippi, the state’s first medical-marijuana testing lab. Photo courtesy Cliff Osbon

Osbon—a founder, investor and board member for Steep Hill Mississippi—said the general public may think of cannabis culture as one that is not scientific or smart in a business sense, but he insists otherwise.

“In fact, they start looking at all these businesses that are in this space, and they go, ‘Wow, there’s a lot that goes into this to get a patient some relief,’” Osbon said.

Former Mississippi State Auditor Stacey Pickering joined Steep Hill Mississippi this year as its chief executive officer. After leaving the auditor’s office in 2018, he led the Mississippi Veterans Affairs board before resigning in 2022.

“We’re building an industry, not just building a business,” Pickering told the Mississippi Free Press. “We’re not just a start-up.”

Similarly, after Initiative 65 passed, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove read an article in a local newspaper that said Mississippi would be the 35th state in the U.S. to have a medical-marijuana program.

“My initial reaction was (that) I thought it was a good thing to be 35th instead of 50th,” Musgrove told the Mississippi Free Press.

When discussions around medical marijuana circulated in Mississippi, Musgrove, like Osbon, said he noticed a lack of attention on cannabis testing.

“All of the focus was on the license for growing, dispensaries and all of those kinds of things,” Musgrove said. “Very little was being said about testing. Almost nothing was said about testing.”

The former Democratic governor asked lawmakers about testing medical marijuana to ensure it is safe for patients to consume.

“My theory was that the testing part is the validation part to make sure what goes on the market in the dispensary is in fact safe and is in fact what you think you’re buying,” Musgrove said.

He mentioned the risk that could come from buying marijuana illegally from street dealers, citing fears that marijuana could be laced with stronger drugs. He said medical marijuana is safer and specifically targets patients’ needs.

“So here, you have a direct patient with a specific problem going to a licensed dispensary where you can get exactly from that dispensary what is being sold and don’t have to worry that it’s been laced with something,” Musgrove said.

‘Much More Arduous Than I Expected’

Musgrove and fellow attorney Quentin Whitwell, the chief executive officer of Progressive Health Systems and a former Jackson City Council member, partnered to develop a medical-marijuana testing facility, Magnolia Tech Labs, in Holly Springs, Miss. It is currently the only cannabis-testing lab in North Mississippi.

Magnolia Tech Labs currently projects that it will open around June 2023, Whitwell said in an interview. The lab is in the validation process with the Mississippi Department of Health to ensure its cannabis-testing processes, policies and procedures meet legal requirements.

Whitney Morris analyzes a cannabis sample
Steep Hill Mississippi Lead Analyst Whitney Morris analyzes a cannabis sample for pesticides and mycotoxins. Photo courtesy Stacey Pickering

Initially planning to launch earlier this year, Whitwell said he and Musgrove took a “more cautious approach” to opening their testing facility, which delayed Magnolia Tech’s opening date. A vendor supplied Magnolia Tech Labs with testing equipment and is working with the owners on the validation progress.

Whitwell said he was not interested in being a cannabis grower or dispensary owner, but he thought cannabis testing was a perfect way for him to join the medical-marijuana industry.

“To me, (testing cannabis) is an extension of the vision I have for better health for people,” Whitwell said.

As a health-care professional, Whitwell is experienced with Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments-certified laboratories.

“But starting one from scratch is much more arduous than I expected,” Whitwell said.

He said factors like dealing with supply-chain issues, installing equipment, retrieving accurate samples and working with state officials have challenged the owners as they establish Magnolia Tech Labs.

Under its license, Magnolia Tech Labs is authorized to transport cannabis to and from growers. However, Whitwell said he and Musgrove had not decided whether Magnolia Tech will provide transportation or outsource it from a separate company.

“We’re addressing every issue one at a time,” he said.

Whitwell said their team has been speaking with individuals who are qualified to deliver cannabis while also looking into a way for Magnolia Tech Labs to provide the service. They plan to make a decision closer to the lab’s opening date.

Cannabis Testing Requirements

The Mississippi Legislature has issued regulations for testing marijuana, including the size cannabis samples need to be. Since cannabis is not federally legal, the Food and Drug Administration does not issue guidance for the plant.

The Mississippi Department of Health issues validations to testing labs for both cannabis flower and processed cannabis, which is the trimming of the cannabis plant that is ground until it becomes the oil that goes into edibles or vape cartridges.

The Legislature requires that cannabis-testing facilities perform eight testing methods to issue Certificates of Analysis for cannabis growers to sell their products.

Lab scientists look at cannabinoid levels, which is the percentage of THC, the substance that elicits the “high” cannabis users often feel, present in the samples. This test allows cannabis cultivators to price their products accurately and informs patients of the potency level of their desired medical-marijuana purchase.

Dr. Ben Messay, chief science director for Steep Hill Mississippi, explained how to detect cannabinoid levels.

“First, the sample has to be extracted using different kinds of solvents,” Messay said. “We have methanol and acetone as extractions that we use … and we dilute it down to the volume we load onto HPLC instruments.”

The HPLC instruments analyze the samples and list the cannabinoid levels. Next, the scientists identify all terpenes present in the cannabis sample and list the top five with the highest percentage in the sample.

Terpenes are present in other coniferous plants, like thyme, lemons and Spanish sage. The National Library of Medicine said terpenes are “the largest and most diverse group of naturally occurring compounds.”

Cannabis terpenes cause each strain of the flower to smell and taste differently. Messay said cannabis oils may not have terpenes.

“Normally, you lose the terpenes when you concentrate the samples (into oil),” he said.

Each strain of the cannabis plant has different levels of terpenes, Pickering explained.

“That’s important to a lot of patients to know what they’re getting,” he added. “Each terpene can react differently based on need.”

Messay said that depending on the product, patients can match terpene levels with what is best for their ailment.

Steep Hill Mississippi Lab Director Dr. Ben Messay talks to Zaria Evans
Steep Hill Mississippi Lab Director Dr. Ben Messay discusses the potency of cannabinoids with analyst Zaria Evans. Photo courtesy Stacey Pickering

Another test looks for residual pesticides on the cannabis samples, as the amount must come within the MSDH’s guidelines. The MSDH requires labs to test for more than 60 types of pesticides. Lab scientists analyze the samples’ moisture content to ensure the correct amount of water is in the cannabis flower and oil. One test looks for heavy metals in the flower and oil. Heavy metals can travel in water to affect cannabis.

The Legislature requires tests for microbial impurities, residual chemicals, foreign material and mycotoxins, the fungi-produced, natural toxins found in some plants.

Steep Hill also tests for Hops Latent Viroid, an infectious RNA only found in plants. The National Cannabis Industry Association reports that HLV can affect vegetative cannabis by stunting its growth, making leaves smaller or causing the plant to turn yellow. In flowering cannabis, HLV can cause the plant to lose all of its terpenes or reduce its cannabinoid production, the NCIA said.

The Legal Side of Cannabis Testing

Julie Mitchell, a health-care attorney for HAT Law Firm in Ridgeland, Miss., works with health-care providers to ensure they are compliant with the state’s boards. The same state boards govern the medical-cannabis program.

Using her expertise in health-care law, Mitchell helps people in the cannabis industry meet the state’s legal requirements for medical marijuana. Mitchell said District 74 Rep. Lee Yancey asked her for advice when drafting medical-marijuana laws concerning health-care providers.

One issue federally funded health-care entities face is whether to allow marijuana in their facilities since it is not federally legal. Mitchell said her team of lawyers is working with the Mississippi Hospital Association to develop regulations for medical marijuana for both hospital staff and patients.

“You have to balance things, like the right to prevent marijuana from being in your facility to the patient’s right to have their medicine available to them,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said she and other people in the state’s health-care field visited states across the country to assess their marijuana laws, including states like California, where cannabis is fully legal for individuals over the age of 21.

“My understanding from talking with these (legal) regulators is they basically picked and choosed what they could find was the best part of various programs across the (country),” she explained.

Mitchell said working as a cannabis lawyer has been “highly entertaining” as she watches the medical-cannabis industry develop in the state.

Explaining the excitement for legal medical marijuana in the state, Pickering said people have moved to Mississippi to be part of the industry alongside in-state investors.

“It’s a very diverse group of people in this industry to be a part of,” Pickering said.

This story is the first in an ongoing series of stories about the burgeoning medical-marijuana industry in Mississippi. Email story tips to heather@mississippifreepress.org.

Editor’s Note: Ronnie Musgrove has previously donated to the Mississippi Free Press, which did not influence this publication’s coverage of this topic.

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