Douglas Duncan, ’11 BS and ’15 PhD Chemistry, has a succinct answer when asked how he found himself working in the cannabis industry. “It was very difficult to find a job in Vegas with a science degree — extremely difficult,” he says. “So it was either move out of state or stay here and try and find a unique area of chemistry. That unique area happened to coincide with the medical market exploding out here.”
Duncan and fellow alumnus Israel Alvarado, ’15 PhD Microbiology, landed with Ace Analytical, a cannabis testing laboratory founded in 2015. It’s one of a handful of labs in the state testing to make sure the products dispensed are safe.
They describe their work as a bridge between pharmaceutical testing and food testing. Cannabis is a naturally growing plant, like food, but testing depends on adhering to very strict standards on contamination and microbial growth, similar to the pharmaceutical industry. “Like any other food industry — or any kind of manufacturing industry — you need quality control,” Alvarado said. “People who are taking this plant as a medicine may be cancer survivors or someone who is very ill.”
With such stakes, Alvarado doesn’t take lightly his role in an industry that is easily mocked. Untested cannabis may contain coliform bacteria, which like e. coli can lead to serious health issues — or molds, which can be really potent toxins in small concentrations.
“No one wants an AIDS patient with immune deficiency getting microbial growth in their marijuana, smoking it, and getting pneumonia,” says Duncan. “That could be a death sentence for some of these people.”
So Ace receives and tests samples from growers or extractors. The lab tests for mycotoxins, pesticides, solvents, and heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. Alvarado specializes in bacteria. Using a baseball card-like petri film, he suspends samples in a solution to grow any bacteria or mold living in the sample. The amount of growth helps determine whether the bacteria is concentrated enough to be dangerous. He also uses genetic sequences from bacteria or mold to identify them.
Duncan, meanwhile, tests for pesticides. There’s a huge range. Some cultivators are pesticide free; others are not. He once tested a sample that had more than 10 times the state limit for pesticides, making him grateful for his laboratory safety gear. “I certainly wouldn’t want anyone consuming it,” he says. “The only way to truly protect patients is through the work of independent laboratories like ours.”
When samples come back with unsafe levels, the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health is notified. Officials observe as the cultivators destroy the entire lot, so there is little margin for error in the lab tests.
When the products show problems, lab scientists also help cultivators find organisms that are causing trouble. They use onsite environmental swabbing and monitoring to identify potential sources of contamination: water, soil, and common surfaces.
Alvarado’s doctoral work at UNLV focused on spore-producing bacteria (think anthrax). He says he “lucked out” finding his job through a lab mate. “I wanted to continue doing research; I just didn’t know what was available,” he said. “As a scientist, you always look for the next challenge.”
Now that Nevada voters opened the door for recreational marijuana, Alvarado anticipates career growth. He hopes the state continues economic development efforts to broaden the opportunities for scientists who want to stay in Nevada.
As for Duncan, the work in the lab is exciting because there are so many unknowns in the young industry. “Things that a lot of scientists take for granted — standards and methods — we are at the forefront for developing.”
It’s an industry he once held strong opinions against. “I come from a family of drug dealers and addicts,” he said. “I had a lot of negative perceptions of marijuana as a ‘gateway drug,’ but then I started exploring the science — the science changed my mind on everything.”
He hopes to see policy changes to allow labs to expand their work into research and development. Under current law, the labs cannot independently grow plants large enough for the lab to study method development in the industry products. Perhaps the biggest challenge is one at the very root of this new profession: the constant risk of a federal crackdown, or as Duncan calls it, “the hammer over our heads.”
He worries that a changing political climate could leave him without a job. “That scares us. It also makes it difficult to attract great talent.” Scientists have to be cognizant of whether their industry experience will freeze them out of future jobs in the federal public sector, particularly those that require security clearances.
Still, the reality is the industry in Nevada is likely to grow, and it will need the behind-the-scenes quality control work of scientists to make sure it succeeds. “The marijuana industry can be a great asset to take some of the UNLV graduates and keep them in the economy,” Duncan says. “That’s the best way we can recoup the cost of our (state’s higher education) investment — by keeping our graduates in the community.”