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California’s lab results put to the test

By Tiffany Devitt
Aug 24, 2022
Tiffany Devitt, Courtesy:CCIA

There’s a dirty little secret in the California cannabis industry: you may not be getting the amount of THC you’re paying for.

Why? It’s well known that California’s cannabis consumers are willing to pay more for higher THC potency. As a result, there are obvious incentives for producers to “lab shop” or select a lab based on which one regularly reports the highest THC levels instead of on price, turn-around time, convenience or accuracy. And lab operators know they can earn more if their tests show high THC levels.

Many in the industry have long been concerned about the accuracy of laboratory testing results and the product labels and Certificates of Analysis generated from them. Potency inflation undermines public confidence in the regulated market and disadvantages good actors whose accurately labeled products won’t garner the price or volume of sales of those with inflated THC numbers. 

In fact, a recent article in Cannabis Industry Journal by leaders at two laboratories cited a study they conducted a year ago that showed of the 150 flower samples they purchased off-the-shelf from dispensaries, 87% were labeled with THC levels more than 10% off the actual content (the legal permitted variance) and more than half varied by over 20%.

Recently, the Department of Cannabis Control took steps to address this important issue with the June release of proposed regulatory updates to testing methods and operating procedures. As stated, these “aim to ensure all licensed testing laboratories are using the same standardized cannabinoid test method which will ensure consumers receive accurate and consistent information regarding the cannabinoid content of the cannabis and cannabis product they use or consume.” 

It’s a well-intentioned plan to address a critical issue and protect consumer interests. But, despite the headline appeal, one size fits all doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, the methodology proposed may inadvertently introduce significant inaccuracies for some product types.

Upon publication of the proposed changes, many of California’s cannabis testing labs joined forces to bring their considerable expertise to bear on the subject. These labs performed head-to-head comparisons between current and proposed methodologies across six product segments. 

After multiple tests of each product employing current and proposed methodologies, one finding stood out: the proposed methodology under-reported THC levels in gummies by 90%!

Said another way – the next 10mg gummy you eat might actually have 100mg of THC in it, and you, my friend, are gonna be unexpectedly hella high!

While the results were reasonably similar in categories like flower, resin, rosin, soft gels and beverages, having massive abnormalities in results for a popular and fast growing category is not good for anyone. If these draft regulations are not amended, a lot of relaxing afternoons or pleasant concert experiences are going to turn into “I think my face might be melting” freakouts.

So, what’s the solution? We’re hopeful the Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) will take the industry’s expert views into consideration during the current public comment period and change the new regulations so that the required testing methods are appropriate to the unique properties of the product being tested.

More specifically, we have suggested that the new proposed methodology only be made to apply to flower, vape cartridges, and concentrates and that a second (or multiple additional) methodologies be permitted by regulations to accommodate other product types. And also that the regulations include mechanisms that allow the rapid adoption of a more reliable testing methodology if and when one is identified. These actions are well within the DCC’s charter.

We understand the simple message of telling consumers that all their cannabis products have been tested and labeled in the same way regardless of producer or lab may seem like a quick, easy route to building consumer confidence and making enforcement easier. But all it takes is a few bad experiences from too-strong edibles to set us back to where we were or worse.

The industry is grateful for the DCC’s efforts to address this important issue and believe that with a few simple changes to the proposal, the DCC’s goals can be achieved with far less risk to consumers and California cannabis companies.

Guest contributor Tiffany Devitt is chief of regulatory affairs at CannaCraft and vice-president of the California Cannabis Industry Association board of directors. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of WeedWeek or its staff.