"I think consumers have the right to know what is in the products they are consuming," said David Lampach a cannabis activist who founded Steep Hill in 2008 with partner Addison De Moura.
Lampach says it's been the only operation like it in California. Using expensive chemistry equipment, such as a gas chromatograph, the dispensary tests for pesticides and mold, as well potency in samples of marijuana. Steep Hill has 12 employees and contracts with about 50 dispensaries scattered across the state, with a recent boost in business from new medical marijuana lab testing requirements in the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach. DeMoura has called the lab the cannabis movement's "success story of self-regulation."
Steep Hill's client dispensaries often put the results of the lab tests on their marijuana products. Some users are happy to know Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) potency levels, Lampach said.
"Some people don't want to consume cannabis and have their whole day shut down," Lampach said. "Some people prefer something less strong."
But of significant concern is mold. Smoking moldy marijuana has hastened the death of at least one person with a compromised immune system, according to study published by the American College of Chest Physicians. A bone marrow transplant patient died from Aspergillosis, a lung infection that can be caused by inhaling spores of Aspergillus fungus.
"People with cancer or HIV, there are lots of immuno-compromised patients, they want to know there is no mold or something that can kill them in their medicine," Lampach said.
Mold contamination is actually quite common, found on 85 percent of the marijuana tested by Steep Hill. But only 3 percent of the samples tested are truly unsafe for some people, Lampach said.
Pesticides are also a concern. After medical marijuana was reportedly found with high levels of pesticides at a Los Angeles dispensary (170 times the EPA limit for food), Los Angeles now requires testing for pesticides and "any other regulated contaminants," in samples of marijuana sold in dispensaries.
Steep Hill recently started testing for pesticides, which Lampach said has been found "pretty regularly" at some level. "It's just a matter of amount" and which pesticides are a concern. "We just report the results. We let everyone else figure out what they are comfortable with."
Those looking for a safe level of pesticides in marijuana will see that "the EPA doesn't set a trace residue limit (for pesticides) on marijuana because it is illegal to use," Lampach said.
Instead, Lampach said Steep Hill advises people by using the pesticide levels set for hops, flower clusters used in making beer which belong to the same plant family as marijuana.
Because marijuana is often grown indoors, Lampach said pesticides are used to kill mites that thrive on and kill indoor marijuana plants. That is because those mites do not face any insect predators, such as lady bugs.
Lampach expressed dismay at Mountain View's proposal that all medical marijuana sold in Mountain View be grown on the site of the dispensary. In the race to sell cheaper, higher-quality medical marijuana, Lampach said it will likely be grown outdoors more and more. He added that the Bay Area has a poor climate for outdoor growing.
With only 50 dispensaries as regular customers, Lampach said that leaves over 1,000 other dispensaries in the state selling untested marijuana. Steep Hill's best customers are the "idealist" dispensary operators, people who feel they are part of a movement to legitimize medical marijuana. Others simply don't know enough about testing, while others are simply "thugs" who only care about making money, Lampach said.
The police chief and the city attorney have apparently recognized the possibility of the latter group operating in Mountain View. One proposal to try and keep them out is a criminal background check for prospective operators.
While lab testing has become acceptable to the cannabis activists at Steep Hill, it may be a sticking point for the City Council. Members Tom Means and John Inks, both libertarians, have both insisted on little or no regulations on medical marijuana dispensaries, including lab tests. Meanwhile, two other members, Mayor Ronit Bryant and Margaret Abe-Koga, have said they will not support allowing marijuana dispensaries in Mountain View without lab testing. Those four council members, along with a fifth on the seven-member council, Mike Kasperzak, have said they would support a medical marijuana dispensary in Mountain View.