Months after her biotechnology company sold for $40 million, Jessica Tonani is on Seattle’s Highway 99, where Kurt Cobain in his final days shot heroin in cheap motels. She’s scoring a gram of Blueberry Kush.
Tonani doesn’t plan to smoke the pot. Her typical procedure is to isolate some of its DNA and bank it, sequence its genetic profile, and test it for bacteria. After her stop at Choice Wellness, a medical marijuana store in one of the states where pot is newly legal, she buys the same strain in three more places (often collecting a “new-patient gift” of pot-infused gummi bears or goldfish). The goal for her new company, Verda Bio, is to build a database bringing order to billions of potential DNA combinations and, eventually, create stable strains that people can grow like a Red Delicious apple.
Right now, Tonani says, people using pot for health conditions—legal in 23 U.S. states—are doing the equivalent of rummaging through their medicine cabinet blindfolded. One day they might get Tylenol; another, mouthwash. Even when they buy the same strain from the same place, it might not have the same effect because of differences in how each plant is grown. The variety Harlequin, for example, is sometimes recommended for children with epilepsy because it’s high in cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychedelic pot compound that appears to limit seizures.
Tonani analyzed more than 20 samples of Harlequin along with Analytical 360, a Seattle testing lab, and found that 22 percent were high in the psychedelic tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and had almost no CBD. Any kids taking it were likely just getting stoned.
Tonani is also looking at contaminants to determine where they’re introduced and how to control for them. The first two samples turned up a long list of nastiness, including the fecal bacteria Enterobacter asburiae and the vaginal bacteria Gardnerella vaginalis. What this means, politely, is that many people handling pot don’t wash their hands.
The irony of legalization in the U.S. is that recreational users often now have more certainty of their weed’s safety than people with legitimate conditions whose suffering was part of the original justification. Washington State, for example, requires its few dozen recreational stores to test pot for contaminants and to display THC and CBD content. There’s no such rule for the far more numerous medical pot stores—as many as 300 in the Seattle area alone—which are still in a legal gray area after the state legislature failed to pass a bill regulating them this year.
“It’s exactly the opposite of the way it should be,” says Randy Oliver, chief science officer at Analytical 360. Oliver says his lab gives failing grades to about 15 percent of the recreational samples it tests for mold, potentially dangerous to sick people with compromised immune systems. Medical pot stores rarely seek tests of mold and other contaminants, he says.
Some of the latest states permitting medical marijuana, including Florida and Utah, have done so by allowing only a type that’s verified as low in THC and high in CBD. Colorado, the other state to permit recreational use, doesn’t require contaminant testing for medical marijuana centers, though most test on their own, says Natriece Bryant, a spokeswoman for the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division. Colorado also has rules on hand-washing and sanitation for those locations.
In the dispensaries Tonani visits, there’s little consistency. The waiting room in one place is like a doctor’s office, with plush leather chairs and stacks of manila folders. At another, lit with a harsh bulb over a marijuana plant growing in a converted shower, the guy at the counter says he’s never found that certain strains work any better for ailments. Just find one that gets you really high and numbs the pain, he says.
Tonani, 38, who co-founded GnuBIO, a DNA sequencing company sold (PDF) in April to Bio-Rad Laboratories (BIO), has a personal as well as financial interest in pot’s future. She turned to the drug a decade ago for a gastrointestinal condition that led to the removal of part of her stomach, multiple surgeries, and twice-weekly intravenous infusions. Her doctor has since asked her to counsel other patients who think pot might help, and she’s frustrated not to have better answers.
While Colorado is spending $9 million on research into marijuana’s potential medical benefits, there’s little federal funding because of pot’s classification as a Schedule I dangerous drug. Many of the cannabis breakthroughs—like Sativex, a mouth spray for multiple sclerosis sufferers developed by the U.K.’s GW Pharmaceuticals (GWPH)—have occurred overseas. Verda Bio, which may raise money from investors later this year, hopes to eventually generate revenue from licensing or sales of stable plant varieties and cannabis-based treatments, Tonani says.
“I honestly believe it saved my life,” she says of pot. “But it’s just not a medical system right now. Some people get lucky, and some people don’t.”