Originally published on The Georgia Straight.
It has been said that Canada’s burgeoning cannabis industry is largely dominated by men, so when the Straight learned about a Lower Mainland cannabis-testing lab run by a team of women, we were thrilled to check it out.
At Northern Vine Labs in Langley, resident scientists Katherine Maloney, Claire Maloney (the two are cousins), and Jaclyn Thomson work in sync to offer quality-control testing of cannabis and cannabis products to licensed producers and registered medical patients. Siobhan McCarthy keeps the girl power going on the sales-and-marketing side.
Two men do work for the company, with David Galvez serving as adviser and consultant and Clayton Chessa managing operations. During an interview with the four women at the lab, McCarthy says that although there wasn’t a directive to hire women exclusively, Northern Vine simply acquired the best people for the job. The company, a subsidiary of Abattis Bioceuticals, has been around for four years and has been licensed to test cannabis since October 2016.
With its controlled-substance licence from Health Canada—a document so challenging to obtain that Katherine (Northern Vine’s “qualified person in charge”) likens the process to a circus—the lab offers its clients seven different types of testing.
The first test that clients often look for is potency, or the strength of cannabinoids like THC and CBD. Northern Vine’s potency test considers 12 prominent cannabinoids. A separate test lists the terpenes (the organic compounds that give cannabis its distinctive aroma) found in a given sample, while others search for pesticides, heavy metals, aflatoxins (toxic compounds produced by certain moulds), microbiology, and residual solvents like propane or butane.
“We test everything from flower and oil from licensed producers to edibles we get from some of our registered medical patients,” says Thomson, who came to Northern Vine with a doctorate in chemistry and experience working in the natural-health-product industry. “So we also get chocolate bars, cookies, and other things that they’re making or using at home, too.”
Currently, Northern Vine is one of two operational cannabis-testing labs in the Lower Mainland (the other being Anandia Labs, near UBC) and one of 33 laboratories licensed to handle cannabis in Canada, though several of those labs are not yet operational. Thomson says purchasing instruments and developing testing methods are very costly and time-consuming steps in setting up a lab.
With 84 licensed producers to date and approximately 250,000 registered medical patients from across the country eligible to have their product tested, the women of the lab say they have been feeling the pressure—especially since May 2017, when Health Canada announced that it would require all licensed producers to conduct pesticide testing on all products.
(This was in addition to tests for microbial and chemical contaminants, which were already required. Prior to this, Health Canada had left the decision to test for pesticides in the hands of licensed producers, some of which opted not to test in order to save money.)
Despite the ever-growing pile of work on their desks, scientists at Northern Vine say they have been able to maintain quick turnaround times for clients eager to learn the exact contents of their cannabis. They claim it’s been one factor, other than their all-female lab team, that has separated them from other testing facilities in B.C.
“There aren’t a lot of templates around,” says Claire, who has a background in pharmaceutical analysis and analytical chemistry. “It’s not like we can say ‘We’ll look at this lab that has been in the business for many years,’ because there are no labs that have been doing cannabis testing for that long.”
Still, the opportunity to be on the brink of something so fresh outweighs the challenges. For Katherine, who has been with the company for three years and holds degrees in chemistry and pharmacy, the newness of the space is what makes the work exciting.
“I love solving problems; it’s so gratifying to work so hard and to figure something out,” she says. “To be in a new industry that doesn’t have a 100-year history, it’s really exciting to be figuring these things out independently.”
The lab’s federal licence also allows them to undertake research and product development, something that all three scientists say makes their jobs much more dynamic. With so much to learn and discover, Thomson calls it “a research chemist’s dream”.
By translating the science from the lab into digestible information for people on social media, McCarthy hopes to reach patients who might not be aware that if they are registered, they can have their products tested—whether they are from a licensed producer, a designated grower, a dispensary, or their own greenhouse. She calls it the “know your medicine” campaign.
“I think [that] for quite some time people were just so excited that they had access to cannabis that they didn’t think they had to question it,” she says.
“I want to break it down visually. We have to take science’s word for it, but if we can give people a peek through the process and the microscope, then we can empower the patient to be educated and have a voice in the matter.”