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As the cannabis industry finds its footing in Santa Barbara County, one thing that's missing is local testing labs -- facilities that provide processes required by the state as of July 1 to ensure marijuana products meet certain standards.

That won't likely be the case for long, however, as a handful of hopefuls work to capitalize on the potentially lucrative Central Coast cannabis testing market.

“Testing and distribution are inextricably linked and the reason is because every single manufacturer or cultivator has to sell their product to a licensed distributor,” said Santa Barbara County Assistant Executive Officer Dennis Bozanich. “This is why we’re working to establish a few distribution centers and testing labs in the county because they go hand in hand as far as pumping the local cannabis economy here, and Santa Barbara (County) is definitely going to grow.”

To date, the state has issued licenses to 33 laboratories statewide since July 1, according to Aaron Francis of the Bureau of Cannabis Control.

They're important because distributors must provide a random sample of every product, whether it’s a flower or an edible, to a testing lab. The product is embargoed until it passes each test and the lack of access to labs creates a backlog that affects how quickly stores can be restocked.

The state requires each facility to test for THC, CBD levels, synthetic chemicals, pesticides and other compounds; if any product receives negative results, business owners are responsible for destroying the product.

Some local cultivators in the county have begun doing their own preliminary in-house testing to check THC levels, Bozanich said, but once any item enters a lab, products have to be relabeled with whatever accurate THC/CBD contents were found.

Where can they locate?

The county has agreed that testing facilities will be allowed on most properties zoned for commercial and industrial use in unincorporated areas, according to Jackie Campbell, supervisor for the county’s Planning and Development department.

But while the county is communicating with several people about lab construction, there have been no applications submitted to build testing labs. Furthermore, the amount of industrial and commercially zoned lands in unincorporated areas is limited, according to Campbell.

She pointed out that labs and distribution centers won’t be built in residential or agricultural zones but, rather, will be in industrial commercial parks, most of which are found in North County.

There are some unincorporated areas like Isla Vista, Summerland or Orcutt, for example, that have small areas of commercial zoning that could support a testing lab, Campbell said.

“I’ve got folks looking for property to set up labs, but there’s not too much property that’s appropriate for labs or distribution centers, which would work better in industrial areas,” Bozanich said. “There’s not too much space in South County, but thankfully cities like Lompoc and Goleta are great for labs, and they’re allowing labs.”

Bridging the bottleneck

Until a lab opens in the county, cannabis products that need to be tested will have to be shipped to places like Indio, Simi Valley or Northern California.

Success of the local cannabis industry is contingent upon both labs and distribution centers opening in the county, Bozanich said.

When testing labs become inundated with samples waiting to be tested, products are embargoed until it’s their turn to go under the microscope. The time to wait for testing is the key difference between profit and loss, Bozanich said.

“Think of it this way — look at wine distributors … they go out and sell their brand, whether it’s on menus or restaurants or at grocery stores, they have to sell whatever products they have,” Bozanich said. “Products need to take up space on the shelf and generate sales, that’s how business works. Pot distributors have to think the same way.”

The more licensed testing facilities open in the county, “the less idle time for pot to be embargoed — we want to be super-efficient, coming from purely an objective, economic perspective,” Bozanich explained.

Merso Labs a first?

Lompoc is on track to be the first city in Santa Barbara County to have a testing facility.

Kaleb Asfaha, CEO of Merso Labs Inc. (Marijuana Enterprise Research and Service Organization), recently submitted an application to the city to establish a testing lab in an existing structure at an old farming facility located in the 1200 block of West Laurel Avenue.

If all goes well with the permit process, Asfaha hopes to open Merso as a fully functional, well-oiled machine by Dec. 1, at the same time permanent state testing regulations are enacted "so our local growers and manufacturers can get their products quicker to the stores,” he said.

Asfaha, a former Bay Area-based pharmaceutical chemist, originally had plans to open Merso in Sonoma County, a dream that was destroyed last year when wildfires burned a small industrial park in Santa Rosa where he hoped to build a lab. Asfaha discovered Santa Barbara County after a friend told him that “it has the potential of becoming the next pot mecca of California,” because of its great farming weather, generations of farmers and agricultural soil.

“Lompoc has all those benefits, from little taxes, great climate and so much cheaper than the Bay Area as far as commercial rent is concerned,” Asfaha said. “There’s also no other testing lab in existence to compete with, so Lompoc was perfect.”

During his experience as a scientific consultant for two cannabis cultivators in Santa Barbara County, Asfaha learned from his clients that many labs in Los Angeles and the Bay area have a longer turnaround time because much of their testing for certain pesticides and heavy metals was being outsourced to other counties. Many labs don't know how to test for certain contaminants in pot, “as the science of cannabis is testing is still in its fetal stage and is so new.

“That means businesses would wait up to two weeks to get their samples back,” Asfaha said. “It changes hands twice. Heavy metal testing only takes about two hours.”

Asfaha said Merso will only test products for a licensed business, and won't test restricted pot products, like cannabis-infused meat, dairy, alcohol or anything banned by the state.

He is encouraging local businesses to test with local labs once they open, instead of relying on carrier services, and said he plans to hire exclusively local employees — whether they’re students from UCSB, Cal Poly, Cuesta College, Santa Barbara City College and Hancock College, or other local scientists.

“The more we keep it local in the county that’s about to break out big in the pot market, the better our economy will be,” Asfaha said.

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