Jeff Raber Werc Shop InterviewThe Werc Shop, a medical marijuana testing facility located in Southern California is the brainchild of Dr. Jeff Raber. Jeff, a science nerd with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from USC, prefers the title Head Coach to CEO since he and his scientist co-workers act more like a team than a business. Even The Werc Shopís mission statement ďMoving Sustainable Medicines ForwardĒ seems a little smarter than the room, but once you talk to Jeff, you see his vision and it becomes clear: Dr. Jeff Raber wants medical marijuana patients to know exactly what is in that 20-dollar gram they bought at their local collective. Is the Blue Dream you bought at the trippy dispensary in Venice from the same source as the same named bud from the head shop in Van Nuys? Most likely they are from various growers that use different techniques for growing, curing and delivering that can alter potency. Dr. Raber and his colleagues scientifically measure the THC, CBN and CBA (There is science involved, but no quiz, I promise) contents of bud or edibles and within two days can tell you what those levels are. They can also indentify the harmful things that are lurking in your smoke, like molds, yeast or pesticides. After testing has been completed, The Werc Shop provides labels for the dispensary, much like the FDA-mandated labels you see on products in U.S. grocery stores. The labels make it easy for patients with varying ailments to immediately see the strength and numbers on their medicine. If they are looking for a headier high, or if they need to diminish pain or nausea, they can find out by simply reading the label. Medical marijuana testing is the wave of the future and Dr. Raber is at the forefront of the industry, with state-of-the-art technology and science. I was lucky enough to gain access to this innovator in the field of marijuana testing and his facility. I even got to wear safety gogglesÖsweet!
How did you get interested in this type of business?
I got involved with the Cannabis business through my brother. He was working for a construction company and was asked to build a storefront dispensary. Soon after I joined the company as a consultant to help them with their business development. Then I began to do research on the science of it on my own. I think I quickly became aware that there could be a tremendous amount of benefit. And in the context of doing that we got close to the operators. They were looking for someone responsible to operate a few clubs. Me and a few others were asked, would you like to start one, maybe you can build your own?
So I thought real quickly, I could help a lot more people, other than becoming my own dispensary if I serviced all the other ones, tried to educate everybody, utilized our science backgrounds to really fill that gap. And more importantly, not just whatís in the plant but whatís not there as far as public health and safety. So how do I protect people from getting hurt? What else could be there? Pesticides, microbiological contaminants, and other things you donít want there adulterating the products. Let alone a lot of the dose stories I heard about with edible products.
I felt there was a gap as far as patients arenít getting what they need. No one has any idea what it is. Everybody calls everything "Top Shelf." Every ad says "high quality." Nobody knows what any of that is. You have a bunch of education gaps with people who arenít familiar with the medicine. The scientific evidence to me was overwhelming and compelling. You read reports by Dr. Lester Grinspoon out of Harvard, who has done the analysis and has said this is one of the safest compounds and drugs that you could find. Itís a natural resource; itís sustainable.
What do you test for?
For safety we do microbiological screening. So weíre looking for microbiological contaminants such as the Terra Aerobic count; thatís any bacteria that grows in the presence of oxygen and includes bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella. Yeast and molds are together. So there are 3 types of tests you can run. We use a new rapid profiling technique that is forty-eight hours for a mold test, which is very different from any other lab out there. Most other facilities take up to sixty days to get results.
Looking at the label, I see listings for THC and CBD. Are those the only chemicals that a patient consumes when using cannabis?
So youíre getting about 300 to 400 chemicals at once when youíre consuming cannabis. So what are those chemicals? Itís a chemical mixture. And thatís the complicated part. Itís not one chemical, thatís the thing. Itís not about THC or just CBD. Itís about the combination of those and other compounds that give you your desire effects. So how do you balance all of that to find out whatís right for you? Itís a very complicated picture but weíre going to hopefully do our job right and pull out the veil and say you need these thirty to get what youíre looking for.
What type of equipment do you use to test the weed?
We bought commercial systems. The same tools that are utilized by pharmaceutical companies. We talked to equipment suppliers that supply the same people in pharmaceutical companies-guys Iíve had relationships with 10 years back in graduate school. You can buy other equipment thatís not as good-not as accurate-not as reproducible-not the right tool for the job, and claim youíre a laboratory-but youíre not doing it right. So itís very important to us to do the science right-to be reproducible, to be accurate, know exactly what weíre doing and tell everybody weíre doing it the best possible way we know today.
So we use a liquid chromatograph and this works at room temperature. So itís very simple, very mild, and very gentle. It does not change the chemicals in the plant at all, in any way, shape or form. As opposed to a gas chromatograph that will heat the sample, decarboxylate and change it before it gets to the analyzer. So as youíre separating all your compounds, thereís chemical changes going on in the gas systems before you analyze it. So our liquid chromatograph allows us to see all those components that you see on the label, THCA and THC. But for food products, Iím not heating it any further so I need to know exactly whatís in there. I can only do that with the liquid chromatograph.
You cannot do that with the gas chromatograph. So we came about and we were one of the first to say you have to use this other equipment. They did a study at the Legal Institute of Medicine in Switzerland that really detailed that gas chromatographs can only convert THCA to THC up to about 70% efficiency.
You cannot get an accurate number unless you use a liquid chromatograph. So, therefore, use the liquid chromatograph and thatís what you need to analyze for orally consumable products. You cannot do food or other products with a gas chromatograph.
And itís been a tremendous educational battle for us to try to inform everybody weíre using the right equipment. It cost us a lot of money, itís very expensive, modern, the right stuff but itís the right tool for the job.
Why is it important to test edibles?
It is much easier to overdo it with edibles. Iíve heard a lot of patient stories and what the issue with that is, itís, you donít know what people are putting in there. You see x, 2x, 4x, 6x, 8x. You see drinks that are 500, 800, 1600 x. Whatís x? No oneís defined x. X of what? Yes. It is very important that you leave here today understanding the difference for why we are much more capable and prepared to test food products as opposed to other labs out there and the big difference comes from the difference in the equipment weíve selected to analyze.
How do you get the samples to your facility?
We go to the Grow facility or the Collectives and we select the samples ourselves. We collect it in a sterile fashion so that we know we havenít contaminated it because I donít want to be blamed for that. And the grower wants to know if it was them or something else. We select the sample in such a way that we know itís a valid representative sample of what we see.
And itís kind ofÖhow much do you have? How is your process to get here? The closer they let us work with them, the more effective and lower our price gets. We donít have to do as many tests if youíre letting me getting closer to you and understanding your whole process. I can qualify your process and then test accordingly. So just like they would do for FDA type processing.
What is the minimum amount of product you need to run an accurate test?
We take two grams for all the tests. We try and take as little as possible. I donít want it around. We want to destroy it all in our testing and we donít want to take products from the patients. Itís a cost to the collective. I take as little as possible to be accurate.
Can the cannabis degrade after testing?
How the product degrades after testing is related to how the collective stores their products. It is quite variable from place to place. Things might dry out a little, and or be stored in warmer or drier places, but the content value won't change too dramatically.
I think importantly from the patient perspective they most likely have a decent idea of the product turnover time in their dispensary (if it is busy, a strain can disappear in days or less, if not, maybe the same thing is there for a week or more). If you are at a fairly busy location, and you see a month old testing date, it is probably safe to assume that isn't indicative of what is currently being provided as each lot/batch or new pound (even if it has the same name) is most likely of a different value.
Can you tell, when youíre testing, the difference between indoor and outdoor?
No, other than a visual look, sometimes. So itís really tricky because sometimes you see greenhouse. Whatís that? Thatís controlled outdoor basically. I hear some of the outdoor guys actually trim their buds to look indoor which makes me wonder where did the rest of the waste go? How much of the plant have you lost? What did you lose behind? Whereíd it go? Hopefully theyíre putting it into food or processing somewhere.
Why is it beneficial for a collective to have this label?
We have to start somewhere and you can start and say well I know I at least have THC values here and my strain smells and looks like this, Iím getting what I want. So now I have a guide. I have at least some sort of guide that patients can use, whether the guy behind the counter is telling them anything correct or not, the patient can inform themselves and use that information to medicate accordingly.
How did you come up with the label design?
Credit to my brother. I said we need to come up with some labels. That was definitely one of the goals that weíd had. We started with some small ones and I came back the next day and he said, you know I grabbed the nutritious facts panel description, out of the FDAís website and it makes sense cause it says hereís the font size, hereís how to lay it out, itís familiar to people, itís very comfortable. This is something theyíll recognize and theyíll be able to relate with and should communicate it properly and well. Why reinvent the wheel? Thatís not what weíre doing here.
Can the product get contaminated in a collective?
Yes. If you look at the entire process-say hereís a collective and itís pretty easy to qualify how thoughtful are they in their cleanliness. Do they use a different jar for each product that they weigh or do they use the same one? What about the tongs, right?
So someone says, "I use wooden chop sticks." Probably shouldnít use wood, lots of bacteria and stuff hang in there. Do you wipe them with Clorox every time? No? Then itís still contaminated. There are many things you can see, but some you canít see, that may contaminate it as well.
Did they weigh it right into the package? ThatĎs probably better than if theyíre weighing into a common jar or pouring it on a common bowl on a scale. Thatís the easy one for us to catch. You shouldnít use the same jar. Use the lid of the jar youíre putting it in if anything. Try not to let everybody smell it or touch it. Someone coughs on it, uh oh, this guyís really sick and the next guyís getting this. Iím not a big fan of that. Little sample jars that you can get a little smell out of and at the end of the day, or in the next two days theyíre thrown away, thatís probably the best thing for those. The big giant candy jars; people are putting their hands in there all the time. Iím concerned about that one.
If I buy a product with all the THC, THCA, CBN that I want, can the numbers change by the way I ingest it? For example, someone is smoking it out of a one-hitter, another out of a 6í bong, another person smoking a joint?
Right. It can change exactly what youíre inhaling and consuming. So you can get different - say you smell a really strong smell - you can get more of those in relation to cannabinoids depending on which device you use. You can get less depending on other things, too. So take for example, the vaporizers. You know you have the big bagged ones, right? The Volcano? Well a lot of compounds condense on the plastic.
Some chemicals are heavier, and quite often, CBD is a little bit, just a little bit heavier than THC. Itís a little bit less volatile, so it condenses first. Then you have these really complicated, fancy bongs, right? Theyíve got the cooling chamber, the ice stuff, you got the dry ice cubes in the air and the other condenser up here, wow! Youíre probably getting hardly any CBD by the time it gets all the way up there, itís mostly terpenes and a little THC. Or mostly THC depending on the strains.
You get very different effects based on your device. That is one thing we donít know yet. A patient is best served by standardizing their own equipment, finding what works for them and using that. And that might be whatís cheapest.
Besides testing the product, what other services do you offer to collectives?
We offer a lot more than just numbers. We give each of the collectives we work with a presentation, to the staff members, if theyíd like to see it, then we leave literature behind so that they have it. I give them a Power Point presentation to try to give them everything they need to be informed. So if you want to know what THC means, what CBD means, this is kind of compressed into that.
But going back again, asking questions, making sure it sticks, leaving things with them that they can refer to if they forgot and we always tell them our lines are open, our emails always open. If you have a question, if your patient has a question tell them to call us. We want to help everybody get the right infoÖ we put as much as possible on the website.
So weíre trying to inform people, you know, my world is chemistry-I like the molecules. Thatís where I live but understanding whatís there allows us to pick and understand what strain, what variety, how do we get here, how do we use it in different ways?
Bottom lineÖwhy did you start this business?
The ultimate goal of starting this instead of a collective was how do I help the most patients with my abilities, skill sets, and background. How do I help the most people? Itís all about helping the most patients, not anything other than that.
For more information on The Werc Shop and Dr. Jeff Raber go to TheWercShop.com