There aren’t any “buyer beware” signs to be found at Bay Area dispensaries, but perhaps there should be. After all, despite regulatory efforts to ensure the safety of cannabis products, question marks abound when it comes to the label on a jar of flower matching the contents within.
That’s where LeafWorks hopes to make a difference. The Sebastopol botanical-identification company has recently taken on cannabis, and for CEO Eleanor Kuntz and Chief Scientific Officer Kerin Law, testing the fidelity of pot genetics was a logical next step for their business.
“We are a value system that enters at all points along the supply chain,” Law explains. “We use genetic tools — DNA-based tests — to tell people what they’re buying, selling, and growing.”
As Kuntz notes, errant labeling and confusion over plant origins is not a phenomenon specific to cannabis.
“I think that there’s a lot of fraud that occurs across the entire herbal market,” she suggests. “This is something that’s ubiquitous in plants. With cannabis, we really have no idea what we’re dealing with on a lot of levels.”
The goal for LeafWorks is to determine genetic fidelity. That doesn’t mean their plan is to see if the jars for sale at a local dispensary are filled with the correct flower. According to Law — who holds a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Georgia — some of the data required to undertake such testing isn’t available yet.
“Right now, we’re not specifically focused on chemistry,” Law says, “because the chemistry of a plant can vary so much with how you grow it.”
In other words, we’re not yet at a point where we can prove whether a jar of cannabis is in fact Blue Dream, because Blue Dream itself has too many variables that have yet to be mapped and quantified. Instead, LeafWorks follows plants from seed to sale, to see if what was harvested in the ground is ultimately what ends up available for purchase. As expected, the results Law and Kuntz have analyzed thus far have yielded some notable discrepancies.
“We have seen fraud in action in our datasets,” Law confirms. “We have samples that are vetted through the breeder that we acquired them from, which gives us a very clear vision of what that plant is. Once you get into the marketplace, the label that’s on the package can be wildly different from what’s inside a lot of the time.”
To be fair, LeafWorks doesn’t believe that all fraud is the result of malicious intent. However, without concrete guidance or repercussions in place, it is up to the company’s clients to take the appropriate action. As Law explains, there is really nothing she can do beyond providing information and hoping those who receive it do the right thing.
“There’s no pressure,” she confirms. “There aren’t even systems in place to check the material, let alone pressure people into doing the right thing. We don’t even have systems in place to do the same kind of label-vetting that we do with other plants and natural products. We don’t have those systems in place yet to be able to hold people accountable and to make sure they’re being honest.”
Kuntz does believe such systems are on the horizon for the cannabis industry.
“It’s coming,” she says. “That’s definitely where the industry wants to go, but genetic identification on a base level is really the way in which people are able to enter into an understanding of chemistry with a solid foundation.”
Simply put, LeafWorks believes customer demand will ultimately lead to a more stringent system that focuses on genetic and chemical accuracy. As more and more emphasis is placed on the terpene profiles and the genetic characteristics of a given strain, the industry will find it necessary to put testing in place that assures these aspects are honestly reflected in product labeling.
“It’s what we do with all other medicinal plants,” Kuntz adds. “If you say there’s ginkgo and ashwagandha in a pill, you better have ginkgo and ashwagandha in that pill when we test it. Being able to substantiate label claims is something that is deeply important in natural products. This is something that is not common in the cannabis industry, but it is rapidly approaching.”
As Kuntz suggests, it is thus best to look at the efforts of LeafWorks as a means to establish a base for a new framework of botanical identification when it comes to cannabis.
“This is a foundation upon which quality assurance can happen,” she says.
Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly
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