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A north metro forensic laboratory is the first publicly funded lab in Minnesota to begin testing cannabis products to determine whether they’re legal or illegal.

Officials with the Midwest Regional Forensic Laboratory in Andover, which serves Anoka, Wright and Sherburne counties, believe the testing will help regulate a proliferation of CBD shops and products increasingly available at convenience stores and tobacco outlets and infused in items ranging from dog treats to lotions and candies.

CBD, short for cannabidiol, and THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, both come from cannabis — which can be either marijuana, legal for medical use but illegal for recreational use in Minnesota, or hemp, which is legally grown by an increasing number of farmers.

CBD is a legal chemical, while TCH is illegal under federal law. Hemp and CBD products are legal if they have less than 0.3% of THC. But until recently the testing of cannabis products determined only the presence of THC, not its purity or concentration.

“Since hemp and marijuana are essentially the same plant, they could yield the same [test] results. We weren’t able to distinguish between the two of them,” said Amanda Vukich, a forensic scientist at the lab.

To ensure prosecutors are charging cases properly, Vukich said a new method of testing was needed. Previous tests could estimate if something was mostly hemp or marijuana, but they lacked “scientific certainty” without testing for concentration.

Users of CBD say it can provide relief from anxiety, joint pain, menstrual cramps or migraines without making them high. But along with more than 18,000 medical-marijuana patients, the surge surrounding cannabis has state officials looking to establish a statewide cannabis office to oversee a largely unregulated industry.

The new testing at the Andover lab will bring some needed oversight, said director Scott Ford. It provides a tool to keep businesses selling CBD products “in check to make sure that what they’re selling is actually legal,” he said.

Results from the new testing method show the exact percentage of CBD and THC, like existing methods for testing methamphetamine or cocaine. Vukich said that states such as Colorado and Virginia employ similar THC testing methods to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.

Of Minnesota’s eight accredited and publicly funded forensic labs, Andover is the first to begin using quantitative testing. A private lab in St. Paul, Legend Technical Services Inc., also does this testing and has been working with state agencies and industrial-hemp license holders to verify that legal products are being grown.

Law enforcement officers have commercial testing kits available if they pull someone over and suspect a plant or liquid concentrate to be THC. Those kits turn a certain color if THC is present, but they don’t determine purity, Vukich said, adding that presumptive tests can also result in false positives.

“We don’t want them charging someone that shouldn’t be charged, or putting the burden of proof on the defendant, because that’s unconstitutional,” she said. “It’s up to the state to prove that this person had a controlled substance and not make them prove it was just hemp, it wasn’t marijuana.”

A case using testing at the Andover lab hasn’t gone to court yet, she said, adding that she didn’t anticipate it coming up much because most of their testing caseload deals with methamphetamines.

But Ford believes there will be an uptick in this type of testing because of the booming CBD industry. The prevalence of CBD shops, he said, means that agencies needed a “little more due diligence” to determine the chemical composition of products.

Matthew Kaiser, who serves on the advisory board of the Minnesota Hemp Farmers and Manufacturers Association, said the new testing is a step in the right direction.

“It’s about time law enforcement starts to adopt the new technology out there to be able to distinguish between hemp and cannabis,” he said. “Farmers are doing their due diligence, repeatedly testing their fields so they know they are within compliance. It’s beneficial to the industry to help clarify this.”

Kaiser said the hemp farmers group is working with stakeholders in the industry to remove gray areas for legitimate businesses pushing for more regulations and standards.

Dan Baker, CEO of FEN Biotech in Ramsey, said testing will benefit the CBD industry by weeding out bad businesses. His company works with 35 hemp growers across the state to produce and sell wholesale CBD extractions. As the owner of an e-cigarette company that he said has suffered from a lack of regulation, he said he welcomes more regulation of CBD products.

“If we don’t put some good enforcement measures in place, soon it’ll be too big for them to try to wrangle in like e-cigarettes got to be,” Baker said.

“This test in our eyes is beautiful because if everybody’s playing by the rules, you’re going to have good, reputable companies in business. … Enforcement is the key.”

Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751