By: Josh Swider
We’ve all heard the term “lab shopping” tossed around the cannabis industry, but the underlying issues with the practice are putting compliant labs at a disadvantage. Since state legalization in 2018, disparities in results and procedures between testing labs has been our key challenge. Essentially, the labs adhering to the regulations and their own scientific ethics are being undercut by those who don’t.
The three main issues we’ve experienced within the cannabis testing industry are potency inflation, the detect/non-detect limits for category I pesticides, and adherence of sampling regulations required by California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control. In response to these concerns, the cannabis testing industry should consider adopting CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods)-like guidelines to minimize potential bias and conflicts of interest. By standardizing procedures, instrument capabilities, and training regimens, the primary focus will once again be guaranteeing the quality and safety of a product prior to retail.
I. POTENCY INFLATION
It’s not an industry secret that some labs will inflate potency numbers. Although it’s not as prevalent as it was a few years ago, we’re still coming across certificates of analysis from other labs that are completely unreasonable, such as a 30 percent total THC claim for outdoor-grown flower. You don’t need to be a scientist to know those numbers don’t line up.
Cultivators who are receiving accurate COAs can’t compete with those who are knowingly (or, in some cases, unknowingly) having their numbers inflated. Since manufacturers, dispensaries, and consumers are still purchasing products based on potency results, cultivators with genuine potency numbers will have to sell their flower at a much cheaper price compared to that ‘30 percent’ outdoor-grown bud.
However, the testing labs are not necessarily to blame for the uneven playing field that’s been created. Our market has placed an excessive emphasis on potency numbers. Consumers will pay more for a product with higher THC, creating a butterfly effect throughout the supply chain. If a cultivator or manufacturer has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to operate, they can’t afford to not be able to compete in this industry because of their potency results. You can’t blame a producer for wanting to use a lab that’s willing to give them the numbers they want.
II. PESTICIDE TESTING
Another issue the industry is facing is the detect/ non-detect limits for category I pesticides. This means that if any of these 21 pesticides are detected in any amount, producers and distributors are left with the option of pursuing costly remediation efforts or destroying the product altogether.
For labs that have purchased top-of-the-line instrumentation, hired experienced analysts, and developed their own methods to detect these analytes, they can see those pesticides as low as 30 ppb. When a client takes their products to one of these labs and fails for trace amounts of pesticides, they can take the same product to a lab that doesn’t have the means to detect them.
The way the regulations are set up now impairs labs who have chosen to spare no expense when running their analytics. This results in inferior labs being able to “pass” contaminated products while still keeping in line with the regulations, attracting more clients and saving a good chunk of money in doing so. You can’t fail what you can’t see.
How is this allowed to happen? With Category I pesticides, detection levels are dictated to be set at 0.10 μg/g or lower. The issue here is that this low detection threshold increases the chance of false negatives when testing for these contaminants simply based on variables like techniques, methodology, and experience. This creates an atmosphere of inconsistency in testing, and ultimately, it opens the door to dirty cannabis making it into retail. This disparity in results also invites cannabis businesses to take their samples to a lab that is more likely to give them a passing COA.
The BCC could remedy this issue by updating their policies and setting limits on Category I pesticides, a suggestion the DPR’s Human Health Assessment Branch (HHA) has already made. In a memorandum submitted to the Bureau back in September of 2019, the DPR recommended changes to California’s current testing regulations based on their recent reassessment of toxicity and hazard identification of these pesticides.
This ongoing reassessment of pesticides in terms of BCC regulations helps to create a fluid cannabis testing system that is best configured to protect consumers. Unfortunately, to date, the BCC has failed to act on recommendations from the DPR regarding adjustments to action levels for pesticide testing, and the issue of detect/non-detect discrepancies persists.
III. ADHERENCE OF REGULATIONS
Cannabis labs in California may be able to take advantage of loopholes in the regulations, but there are still those that are blatantly disregarding protocol for compliance sampling and testing.
Regulations state manufactured products must be in final consumer-facing packaging prior to compliance sampling.This includes batch numbers and UID numbers labeled on every unit in the batch. However, many labs will sample products that have not been labeled, are partially labeled, or will have their sample technicians label only the products taken for analysis. Not only can the BCC look back at sampling footage to confirm samples were taken improperly, jeopardizing both the distributor’s and laboratory’s license, but non-compliant sampling events could result in a public health issue if the products taken for testing are not from the batch sold at retail.
Perhaps the bigger issue here is the BCC’s lack of oversight and inability to address the problems at hand. State regulators have been assigned the task of overseeing the cannabis market, including testing labs, but a report released by the California Department of Finance revealed that, among other difficulties, “the current status and location of personnel is not sustainable to provide effective and comprehensive oversight of cannabis activities throughout California.” This is directly due to funding issues and difficulties hiring and training staff.
With over 10,000 commercial cannabis license holders within the state of California, and the market projected to hit $7.2 billion by 2024, the perception of cannabis is undergoing a rapid revolution. However, current outdated regulations and lack of a centralized regulatory body has created an atmosphere where profit takes precedence over product integrity. By adopting standardized testing methods across the industry, we are treating cannabis products as a legitimate entity deserving of the same commitment quality assurance as the food we eat or the medicine we take.
In the end, accountability for cannabis safety falls squarely on the testing labs examining cannabis samples. Demonstrating proficiency, investment into top of the line instrumentation, and an ethical approach to reporting results creates an equal opportunity for cultivators, manufacturers, and labs to legitimately compete in this industry. More importantly, accurate testing will help prevent dangerous products from entering the marketplace, increasing much needed consumer confidence in the legal cannabis industry.