January 1, 2018, was the day commercial, and adult-use cannabis became legal in California. On the consumer side of regulation, the last seven months have been peachy—what’s not great about walking into any (legal) dispensary and waltzing out with a party bag of flower, edibles, concentrates and more? On the business side of the law, Jan. 1 also signified the start of a massive transition: shifting from an unregulated, black market to a legitimate industry. Part of this evolution involves cultivating and manufacturing clean, pesticide-free products. Before this year—or, July 1, really—lab testing wasn’t mandatory. So, realistically, tons of pesticide-ridden, fungus covered, dirty products lined the shelves of dispensaries in the guise of “medical-cannabis.” Within the last two months, however, state licensed and certified cannabis testing labs have emerged, including BelCosta Labs in Long Beach.
Opening the last week in April, BelCosta became the first lab to open in the Long Beach cannabis market. Upon walking through the entrance, visitors are greeted by the lab’s city and state licenses, fire permits, and lab accreditations framed on the wall. They hang like awards, which, considering the many rings of fire one has to leap through to operate legally, those papers are accolades.
Nate Winokur, vice president and operations manager of BelCosta Labs, leads me on a tour of the facility. Scientists and lab technicians work diligently at their lab spaces. He shows me a tray of vials that are in line to be tested and explains the technical processes BelCosta uses to test everything from flower to edibles to concentrates to oils and more.
Winokur has nearly two decades of experience in the industry. He got his start in the lab testing space with SC Labs—the original lab testing group of the industry that opened in 2010. Applying the knowledge he gained from his experiences there, Winokur designed BelCosta’s entire lab in three weeks.
“It was intensive to make sure every knob, door, cabinet handle, lab station, and all the scientific equipment was accounted for and matched up with city codes,” he said. “But this lab was built from the ground up with an understanding of what a cannabis lab should be. It was also created with growth, and fast and reliable turn around in mind, which was implemented in the design.”
A cannabis lab, according to CFO Matt Dechter, should do more than just test for pesticides, fungi, mold, and other issues. BelCosta is, thus, positioning itself to be a resource to the industry by helping companies mitigate problems from the get-go. “No one wants to get to the end of the production run and lose hundreds of thousands of dollars because they can’t get their product clean,” Dechter says. “That’s why we want to help throughout the entire lifecycle and growth cycle of whatever they’re doing.”
Winokur explains BelCosta is set up to test water and soil previous to growing in order to ensure crops are clean from the start. This is crucial because pesticides are systemic. In other words, toxins impact the entire plant, not just the area it touches. Also, the lifespan of a pesticide can last for nearly a century. So if pesticides are in the soil, the plant will inevitably have neurotoxins ingrained in the buds, stock, and leaves. If you clone that plant, the clone will have pesticides in it. “A company will be able to come to us with their raw material,” Dechter explains, “and we’ll be able to take them all the way through the beginning processes, and get their product on shelves with our testing.”
Since the lab’s inception, the method has always been to go above and beyond, and provide services that exceed the average lab. BelCosta has more lab accreditations than what’s required by state law. For their ISO accreditation, BelCosta went through A2LA, which is thought to be a stricter certification process. No other lab in Southern California currently has that type of ISO accreditation. Additionally, they have a PFC accreditation, too, which is a certification specifically for cannabis labs granted by Americans For Safe Access.
Education is critical through this blossoming industry-wide process because people are still learning about why clean cannabis is essential. Winokur points out that most cultivators don’t understand the long-term effects and repercussions of pesticides. What compounds the issue is we don’t just ingest these neurotoxins: we light them on fire, which changes the composition of the chemical altogether; and then we inhale, marinating our lungs in harmful toxins. Unfortunately, this has likely happened to anyone who’s ever smoked weed, which is why lab testing is vital to our health—it’s even vital to our existence—because it can and will drastically slash pesticide intake.
Myron Ronay, BelCosta’s CEO and president, recalled a time a company brought in flower that tested clean. But once the herb was made into an edible, the finished product tested positive for pesticides. Guess why? The cinnamon used to make the product had pesticides in it. In other words, the food we eat is not held to the same rigid standards as cannabis, which is scary. Why isn’t our food tested this way? It’s also a bit unfair to the cannabis industry to be held to such rigid requirements, especially considering hops (a cousin to cannabis) isn’t expected to uphold to those standards either.
Pesticide levels aside, BelCosta can also help companies figure out their supply chain—or at least provide suggestions. In other words, if a manufacturer doesn’t have a distributor or dispensary connection; or if a cultivator doesn’t know what business to go through for manufacturing, distributing or retail services, BelCosta Labs can provide vetted recommendations.
Ronay explains they’re also developing a client-specific Q&A program to help ensure a product is clean from the time it’s grown to when the oil is extracted and made into edibles, concentrates, topicals, etc. “We’re doing this because we don’t want any batches to go bad,” he says. “What happens then is people often try to push the product through the black market, and we don’t want to see it there either because somebody’s still going to ingest it when no one should.”
BelCosta has taken the difficult road to be what it is today: a glistening, certified, high-end laboratory. Ronay, Dechter, and Winokur are, thus, aiming to define the lab testing standard in California. In an industry that lacks a barometer altogether, it’s necessary to have a leader in the lab testing arena.
“We took the time to develop robust standards at our organization,” Ronay says. “We’ve taken the hard road every way possible to make sure we are doing this right. Yes, test results are test results, but people can genuinely trust ours because we’ve challenged ourselves to do it right and be the lab standard.”