Driving U.S. Highway 93 west of Whitefish, it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty and simplicity of the Stillwater State Forest, with tall trees, rolling mountains, and a considerable lack of human intervention marring the view.
It’s not odd, then, to be caught fully off guard when leaving that quiet, natural world and walking through one door to Stillwater Laboratories, a state-of-the-art technological haven for the chemists and biologists working to ensure the safety of Montana’s medical marijuana products.
White walls, lab coats, and technology on the cutting edge, with mass spectrometers that break material down to parts per trillion, make you quickly forget you’re in the forest.
Inside the secure and reinforced structure, the staff uses sensitive instruments to take apart and analyze marijuana plants, edibles, extracts, powders, and anything else a Montana medical marijuana provider might sell.
“We ensure the safety of medical marijuana,” said lab Director Ron Brost.
Brost started Stillwater Laboratories in 2017 with his wife, Kristine Brost, who works as the operations director for the lab. The pair already had the building in Northwest Montana when the 2017 Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill 333 into law and established requirements for medical marijuana testing.
Kristine, with a biology background and license to practice law in three states, was designing and building laboratories at the time, commuting between Montana and the Bay Area, where Ron was working as a chemical engineer for Apple.
“We’re geeks,” Kristine said.
Despite the fact that Ron was “making a lot of money” in California, the couple knew they wanted to make their way to Montana somehow. The new regulations for testing medical marijuana here provided the opportunity.
Stillwater Laboratories is one of four labs testing cannabis in Montana, and serves a quarter to a third of all medical marijuana providers in the state. State law requires that the lab be open to businesses across the state, so the Brosts’ lab tests marijuana products from as far away as Sidney and everywhere in between.
The lab employs 14 people full time, include five dedicated couriers bringing in samples from all over. Marijuana dispensaries can’t just send in a sample to be tested; it must be selected randomly by lab employees.
And because there are legal and security issues when it comes to the chain of custody of these samples, Stillwater Laboratories also has secure locations in Belgrade and Helena for their couriers to spend the night on their travels.
“Our employees drive 30,000 miles a month,” Kristine said.
“We like to say that we actually drive to the moon each year,” Ron added.
Inside the lab, the organization and workflow produce efficient and effective results, with a readout of each sample outlining how much THC and CBD are in it, as well as turpenes, bacteria like e. coli and salmonella, heavy metals, and pesticides.
It isn’t necessary for the technicians in the lab to be chemists, but the Brosts look for people who can perform repetitive tasks under direct pressure, every day. This means they’ve hired line cooks, bank tellers, and former teachers as technicians. They process 70 to 100 samples each day, and it is of utmost importance that they aren’t confused or cross-contaminated.
“(The samples) are coming in like a firehose every day,” Ron said.
One of Ron’s specialties is workflow and taking all the variables into consideration when developing techniques and processes. It’s been extremely important for the lab, because marijuana is still a federally illegal substance and there are no overarching regulations for how a lab is supposed to be run. Ron calls it being on “the frontier.”
“We came into this and we didn’t have rules and laws,” Ron said. “So we had a pretty good plan put together and managed to use almost all of our life experience.”
The lab typically takes four days to process samples, but there are rush options if the dispensaries want to pay for them. Recently, the lab received accreditation for chemical testing from the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation, as well as Americans for Safe Access.
Stillwater Laboratories also tests hemp, which the Brosts believe will be a major crop in Montana’s near future, and with recent changes to federal law is legal to ship over state lines for testing.
Ron said the lab uses specialty gases and solvents purchased from Montana vendors, and it pays business taxes and a pretty hefty electric bill every month as it runs near capacity. But the Brosts want their company to give back more, and have already adopted a stretch of U.S. Highway 93 for cleanup and plan to help Habitat for Humanity build a home.
Future expansion plans would likely be in other states where marijuana is legal, the couple said, but for now they’re happy with how their lab is clicking along.
“Marijuana is unique as a product; there are so many varieties. Every plant strain and phenotype is different, and the medical and biological affects are different,” Ron said. “We’re trying to get the message across that we’re a legitimate business, and this is a legitimate (medical marijuana) program.”
For more information on Stillwater Laboratories, visit www.stwlabs.com.