Cannabis extraction experts at Levity Solutions want to shatter industry norms

Travis Lane and Phil Kwong say training and quality control set them apart from others in this area of cannabis production.

Photo by Amanda Siebert

Originally published on The Georgia Straight.

Canadians are looking forward to buying legal cannabis in July 2018, but those who prefer to use concentrates will have to wait up to another year before they can purchase extracts like shatter, crumble, or wax that have the government’s seal of approval.

That’s because after pushback from industry stakeholders to include concentrates and edibles in the legislation, the Cannabis Act was amended in October to give the federal government up to 12 months after Bill C-45’s implementation to create specific laws around the production and sale of edibles and concentrates.

Although some U.S. jurisdictions with legal cannabis have indicated to the Canadian government that these products are more challenging to regulate because of the way they are manufactured, critics say not including them from day one of legalization could give the black market an edge.

Local extraction experts Phil Kwong and Travis Lane of Levity Solutions pose an entirely different scenario with the extra year’s wait: it could also be a potential safety hazard if consumers decide to take making extractions—a potentially dangerous process that can involve highly flammable solvents—into their own hands.

It’s why they’re working closely with growers, licensed producers, and stand-alone extractors to establish safe extraction practices and, ideally, open Canada’s first legal extraction lab, with a focus on hydrocarbon solvents like propane and butane.

“It’s a question of using safe solvents and safe procedures, and we believe we’ve developed those,” Lane says over coffee one afternoon with Kwong and the Georgia Straight. “If you think the 18-year-old kid who wants to do this in his basement is going to look up safety protocols before they blast solvent through a tube, you’re wrong.”

As a small-business owner and long-time cannabis cultivator, Lane has expertise in the area of converting standard grow operations to organic ones. At Levity, that knowledge goes hand in hand with that of Kwong, the founder of and lead extractor at local extraction brand Holistek, of which Lane is also part owner.

Together, they offer consulting to vetted growers, producers, and extractors, building safety protocols, creating standard operating procedures, and offering training.

While the taboo around cannabis is being lifted with impending legalization, Lane and Kwong agree that the use of concentrates—or “dabbing”, as it is more colloquially referred to—is still quite misunderstood by the public.

“To me, the biggest misconception about concentrates is that it’s something different from smoking a joint,” Lane says. “It’s not. It’s the same drug, just at a higher concentration.”

Consider them in the context of liquor, he says. What’s the difference between wine with 12 percent alcohol and vodka with 40 percent alcohol, versus dried flower with 20 percent THC and concentrate with 80 percent THC?

“Well, the ratio is about the same,” Lane says, “but the difference is the bottle of vodka can actually kill you.”

He and Kwong believe that although making concentrates shouldn’t be undertaken by just anyone, consuming them has been unfairly branded as nonmedicinal and even dangerous by lawmakers and health officials intent on putting THC limits on legal cannabis products. In U.S. jurisdictions with legal cannabis, concentrates are the fastest-growing sector of the market.

“Extractions are something people want access to, and at the end of the day, not everybody wants to smoke a joint,” says Kwong, who uses them and other cannabis products to help manage the symptoms of his multiple sclerosis. He knows firsthand that the generalizations he hears about dabbing just aren’t true.

Photo by Amanda Siebert

After three years of failed pharmaceutical treatments and eight relapses that left him with permanent damage to his eyes and right arm, he finally found relief from pain and vision loss with cannabis, but he became wary when he couldn’t find any product information about concentrates at local dispensaries.

Instead of chancing it on untested products that might be carrying residual solvents or toxins that could exacerbate his illness, he began to look into making his own.

“Holistek basically started as an R & D project for my own health,” Kwong says. “I wanted to do it properly from the beginning, so we spent many hours doing tests at different points of extraction, finding out at which point solvent leaves the product, and so on.”

Kwong reached out to ExtractionTek Solutions (ETS) in Denver, Colorado, one of the first companies in the United States to develop a safe, closed-loop system for hydrocarbon extraction. Not only do ETS-manufactured extraction machines make the process of extracting cannabinoids and terpenes far more efficient, they are also much safer than any existing black-market backyard operation. Working closely with regulatory agencies and Denver County fire marshals to have its equipment recognized, the company is certified to train licensed extractors throughout the U.S., where more than 500 ETS machines are currently in operation.

Both Kwong and Lane underwent ETS’s intensive training course and received certification as extractors after learning how to use the company’s closed-loop machines safely; how to build a safety-compliant extraction, or “blasting”, room; where to find accredited gas dealers; and more. Lane and Kwong are working closely with the company to create a similar program geared to Canadian extractors.

Being legal extractors in the U.S. doesn’t make them legal in this country, but Lane insists that their training, standard operating procedures, and quality assurance set them apart from illicit extractors.

“We do everything we can to be compliant: we pay taxes; we distribute to municipally licensed business owners; and we try to make sure that we hold ourselves to a higher standard than just some black-market extraction company. There might be people trying to imitate our products, but I haven’t seen any of them making any overtures to try and become legal. Most are making as much money as they can in the meantime, but that’s not what we’re about.”

In the unregulated system we have now, another concern of Kwong’s takes him back to his initial search for product information: without any rules about how extractions are made and no mandatory testing at dispensaries, consumers aren’t always aware of what they’re inhaling.

“When concentrates are made in the U.S., a set of lab results goes with them,” Kwong says. “A lot of what I hear in dispensaries when I ask about concentrates is that they’re ‘dank’, but are they safe for human consumption?”

Lane and Kwong know these regulations are on the way, but they fear it’s unlikely that the government is going to get it “right” right away.

That’s why Lane says that participating in government roundtables and providing feedback to federal, provincial, and municipal governments at every opportunity has allowed Levity to make connections and establish relationships with politicians and officials that others in the industry have not. He says that of late, these meetings have been “impressively optimistic”, with a recent one even ending in laughter and applause.

“I think we’ve seen the lobby efforts that we were putting forth over the last year that felt like they were falling on deaf ears actually didn’t,” Lane says, mentioning the federal consultation paper released last month that proposed adding to the existing Cannabis Act a tier of licensing for “micro” cultivators and producers. He says Levity would fit right into these new categories.

“It’s good to see that the government realized that these jobs and economic factors really do matter,” he says.

Kwong says he and Lane are optimistic that they will have a legal facility for extraction up and running within the next five years, but they’ve also floated ideas of establishing a U-brew–type facility where consumers can bring their own cannabis to be extracted in a safe environment.

Until then, Lane is content to attend every meeting and consultation with the intention of speaking not just for Levity but for self-proclaimed dabheads everywhere who just want access to safe, quality product.