Canadian cannabis industry reckons with inflated THC label claims

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Image of a lab worker testing cannabis with a test tube and eye dropper.

Potency testing on store-bought cannabis flower by a Canadian laboratory has found THC levels significantly lower than the labeled value, sparking an industrywide conversation about how to address inaccurate THC claims.

Rob O’Brien, CEO and chief science officer of Kelowna, British Columbia-based licensed cannabis testing laboratory Supra Research and Development, shared the findings from his Canadian potency tests online.

O’Brien tested 46 different cannabis flower products, grown by 21 producers, in a variety of package sizes purchased from several different stores in B.C.

THC values for all 46 samples were lower than the labels claimed, ranging from 9% to 48% less THC than the label stated.

O’Brien’s findings come as the issue of inflated THC values has also been raised in the U.S. regulated cannabis industry, shining a spotlight on laboratories amid allegations that some labs report inaccurate levels of THC on behalf of the marijuana producers who hire them to test products.

O’Brien, for his part, has not revealed the names of the products he tested or the companies that produced them.

“I’m trying to help the industry, not to shame it,” he told MJBizDaily.

“But the problem is that the emperor has no clothes in this situation.

“And if we (aren’t) honest about that, everybody gets hurt worse in the end.”

O’Brien said he shared his results with Health Canada as well as B.C.’s provincial cannabis wholesaler.

Health Canada confirmed to MJBizDaily that it has received the report and said that “all issues and complaints brought to the department’s attention are taken seriously.”

“As Health Canada is in the process of reviewing the report, the department is not in a position to comment at this time,” a Health Canada spokesperson said in a statement.

THC inflation rumors

Labeled THC values in Canada have come under heightened scrutiny in recent years.

The metric is thought to be one of the key drivers behind purchases by cannabis consumers.

O’Brien told MJBizDaily he was motivated to buy cannabis, test the THC levels and share his results after hearing “a lot of talk that the THC values were inflated.”

“And this is damaging, not only to just consumer confidence, but (it) also undermines the quality of the Canadian cannabis industry,” he said.

Exaggerated THC values have been observed in the U.S. cannabis industry as well, with some state regulators cracking down on laboratories that inflate THC levels.

THC inflation has become an issue in Arkansas, Florida, Michigan and Nevada.

The practice has sparked allegations that some cannabis companies go “lab shopping,” seeking out testing facilities with “a reputation for being easy to work with.”

In Canada, cannabis regulations specify an acceptable THC deviation limit of up to 15% from labeled THC values for marijuana extracts and topicals.

For edibles, THC values can deviate from the label by 15%-25%, depending on the potency of the edible. (Less potent edibles can have a higher level of deviation.)

For dried cannabis flower, however, the regulations “do not set out variability limits with respect to the amount of THC or CBD,” Health Canada confirmed.

“There is no variability limit for dried cannabis because, unlike cannabis extracts or edible cannabis products, dried cannabis is heterogeneous, which means that the amount of THC and CBD varies between different parts of the plant as well as between different plants within a lot or batch,” a Health Canada spokesperson told MJBizDaily.

What explains THC discrepancies?

O’Brien stressed that his testing doesn’t explain exactly why the actual THC values in the cannabis he tested were so different from the labeled values.

Still, he has a few hypotheses.

O’Brien said he has heard secondhand talk that some cannabis processors – who package marijuana products on behalf of cultivators without their own processing license – insist that those cultivators use specific labs for potency testing.

Rumor has it that those laboratories agree to issue certificates of analysis (COAs) showing guaranteed THC levels.

“And if (the laboratories are) willing to do that, they get the business,” O’Brien said.

“And if they’re not, if you’re going to do it accurately, well, that could be a problem.”

Jodi McDonald, president of licensed cannabis testing laboratory Keystone Labs in Edmonton, Alberta, said the lab has lost business as some cannabis testing clients have sought results showing certain levels of THC.

“In the early days, I would say, it didn’t really come up,” McDonald said.

“But in the last few years, it’s been more the conversation that we have with clients than usual.

“Honestly, we lost a lot of market share, because while we had a validated method that we trusted and have faith in, the clients couldn’t move product based on data that came from our lab.”

Another possibility that could explain the inaccurate THC values on labels, said Supra’s O’Brien, is that cultivators are finding “ways to game the system” by sending the most potent cannabis samples from a given batch for testing.

“If you’re sending top buds, and maybe you’re de-stemming those top buds before you send it to the lab, yeah, you’re going to get a higher COA,” he said.

“And if you’re using that one COA on every one of your packaged products, the smaller (packages) don’t have the 2-gram buds that have the high THC content – they have 0.3-, 0.4-gram buds.

“Those things are not going to be at the same level as the premium buds.”

Canadian cannabis production regulations potentially allow a single sample of marijuana to represent a large batch in lab testing.

The rules require THC and CBD testing “on a representative sample of each lot or batch of cannabis,” but they don’t specify the size of a “lot or batch,” Health Canada confirmed to MJBizDaily.

“It can be a football field-sized batch,” Keystone Labs’ McDonald said.

“However, the producing company defines a ‘batch’ is up to them.”

How to rectify the issue of THC inflation

Solving Canada’s apparent THC inflation problem could require action by multiple industry players.

Clearly, cannabis growers, processors and testing laboratories play a role.

Supra’s O’Brien believes provincial cannabis wholesalers – which are government-owned, in most cases – also need to be accountable for the marijuana they distribute.

The wholesalers, he added, are “also partially responsible for why we have this problem, because they’re now not buying product unless it hits certain thresholds of THC.”

Those THC requirements could incentivize growers to present lab results showing high THC content.

O’Brien also called for “better guidance from Health Canada,” the federal agency that regulates cannabis production.

Keystone Labs’ McDonald doubts the cannabis industry will regulate itself.

“There’s too much pressure for searching for higher THC values,” she said.

“So my belief is that it needs to come from the regulatory authority.

“But that change won’t come unless there’s consumer pressure to make a change.”

Solomon Israel can be reached at