Todd Welch doesn’t smoke pot. After a 25-year career with the Michigan State Police in an era of illegal recreational marijuana, he said that he’s more likely to pour cocktails than pack bongs.
But that hasn’t stopped his company from cementing a lucrative, highly specialized foothold in an often overshadowed portion of the state’s licensed cannabis market: the safety compliance facilities statutorily required for growers to test every licensed marijuana harvest in Michigan.
“Our mission has always been to ensure that the product is healthy and safe,” Welch explained. As the chief operating officer of Viridis Laboratories, Welch and his staff in Lansing and Bay City help to oversee testing services for more than 250,000 lbs. of licensed cannabis products annually — or precisely 3,999,948 ounces more than I could smoke in that same timeframe.
Welch brought two other police veterans into the fold to help launch Viridis in 2016. Dr. Michele Glinn spent 12 years in MSP’s toxicology unit. Greg Michaud kept watch over eight crime labs as director of the forensic science division before he became a trooper and retired as a captain.
And as it turns out, retired cops can make for halfway decent technicians in the cannabis world. Between the laboratories in Lansing and Bay City, Welch said his company has tested about 67% of all the recreational and medical bud sold in the state of Michigan over the last five years.
In total, Viridis operates more than 15,000 square feet of laboratory space with about 40 employees — all making at least $40,000 annually. Welch said plans to begin building an addition to the Lansing facility within the next month will only allow for continued expansion.
Before gummies and eighters can hit pot shop shelves, state law requires the products to undergo a rigorous series of tests for the presence of microbes, moisture, pesticides, heavy metals and other contaminants. Labs like Viridis also test for THC content and terpene profiles to ensure customers have as much detail as possible about precisely what’s getting them high.
Viridis’ field teams look more like crime scene investigators than pot scientists, Welch explained.
Decked out in hazmat suits, teams collect samples (0.5% of any given harvest) and haul them back to the lab in temperature-controlled vans to be stored behind several locked doors. From there, the bud is ground up and inspected for outside contaminants. It’s not too uncommon for staff to find bugs, twist ties, trellis netting and tips of latex gloves from the trimming process.
From there, products are taken to separate rooms — namely to avoid contamination — to be tested for pesticides and heavy metals like lead, cadmium and mercury from cultivation.
Ventilation is important; Welch said the air is totally recirculated at least 8 times an hour.
If everything checks out, growers are free to label and package the remaining harvest. If not, the harvest must be destroyed. The samples, unfortunately, also have to be destroyed regardless. I almost cried when Welch showed me a whole refrigerator full of dabs headed for the trash.
A shift from policing to pot hasn’t gone without some stigma — especially for Welch’s old cop friends and colleagues who have been known to rib him from time to time for his newfound “stoner” ways. He remembers jaws dropping when he first disclosed his retirement plans.
“I will say, the response nowadays is totally different,” Welch added. “They think it’s great. They’re interested. They want to know more. That stigma has really gone away over time.”