(This is the second of a two-part series about potency in the cannabis industry. Part 1 looked at how the industry can shift its focus away from potency.)
Cannabis testing laboratories are partly to blame for the marijuana industry’s focus on delivering high-THC products to consumers, according to industry officials.
That’s because state regulators across the nation lack mechanisms to check the accuracy of private laboratory testing results.
Without state-run labs to keep tabs on their private counterparts, industry officials said, cannabis growers and product manufacturers are likely to keep shopping around for private labs that deliver results showing high THC potency.
“On the lab side, inflated potency results that are not accurate are happening everywhere,” said Jill Ellsworth, founder and CEO of Denver-based Willow Industries, which provides marijuana and hemp decontamination technology.
Ellsworth said it would be a “great idea” for state cannabis regulators to use a third-party testing lab that would audit private laboratories.
California and Colorado have taken stabs at operating their own state-run testing labs to audit the THC-potency test results of private labs.
But most state programs don’t operate their own labs to verify results.
The industry’s THC focus comes at a time when scientists are warning that high-THC marijuana is causing more people around the globe to become addicts.
Ellsworth, for her part, said consumer safety should take priority over THC potency.
Companies could then concentrate on educating consumers about cannabinoids and the entourage effects of different terpenes, she added.
But Myron Ronay, CEO of BelCosta Labs, a cannabis testing lab in Newport Beach, California, warned against pushing too hard for terpenes to be the main quality indicator – although he would like to see product labels offer more information about terpene profiles.
“Are people going to spray extra terpenes on their flower?” he asked. “Are labs going to have incorrect terpene profiles?
“There’s a lot of risk inherent in the whole industry.”
Ronay said some cannabis in California is selling with as high as 40% THC potency on the label.
“Which, I honestly don’t believe,” he said. Over 30% THC is possible, according to Ronay.
But his staff has bought flower labeled at 37% THC, gone back to the lab with it and saw it test at 17%.
‘Gaming the system’
In July, Steep Hill Arkansas was included in a class action lawsuit filed by three medical marijuana patients alleging the lab “intentionally inflates the amount of THC in its customer’s flower” on behalf of at least three growers also named as defendants.
The allegations were rejected by Christian Poole, director of marketing for Steep Hill, based in Berkeley, California, with locations in 10 states, Canada and Mexico.
“We have every belief that the lab we’re affiliated with in Arkansas has not broken any rules, that they’ve done things by the books,” Poole said.
But, he added: “Lab shopping is definitely a real thing. It’s an issue in both Canada and the United States.”
Testing labs have plenty of incentives to engage in that kind of behavior, including getting additional business and charging more for favorable results, according to Poole.
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But the broader question about the cannabis industry’s focus on potency is an “important part of moving beyond where we currently stand and can even help eradicate some of the obvious ways of lab shopping to game the system,” he added.
Poole pointed to terpenes as a “major topic,” with a growing body of evidence that the chemical compounds play an important role in how consumers enjoy marijuana.
“There’s a lot of people who will argue that some of the best cannabis they’ve ever smoked was not a high-THC product,” he said.
“The evolution starts to suggest thinking about terpenes as part of the picture as well.”
Poole argued that consumers who know a lot about marijuana and prefer a mix of THC and high terpene content should be driving that evolution of the market as well as pushing growers and retailers to make that type of flower available.
“You’d like people to be practicing what they preach and purchasing products that fit that description,” he said.
Poole also sees a possible downside: If the market shifts its attention to a higher terpene content, then growers might start shopping for labs that give favorable terpene numbers.
Poole also works for Molecular Science Corp., a testing lab based in Toronto.
Health Canada has its own testing labs that the Canadian government contracts to help investigate testing results.
For example, if a certificate of analysis comes in with a very high THC number, then the regulators can check whether the results are legitimate.
Lev Spivak-Bindorf, co-founder and chief science officer for Ann Arbor, Michigan, cannabis testing laboratory PSI Labs, sees the problem with potency inflation coming from several aspects of the industry.
“No one knows where it begins and ends, but a lot of it is the consumers who want what they think is very potent cannabis,” he said.
Even calling the marijuana “potent” because it has a high THC number is silly, according to Spivak-Bindorf.
He suggests looking at THC and CBD ratios as well as other components in the plant, such as terpenes and minor cannabinoids.
But even the prevailing idea that cannabis is getting stronger is a myth, according to Spivak-Bindorf.
The heirloom-like landrace strains – which have been grown for centuries – might more prevalent today because of the wide availability of legal cannabis.
“We didn’t invent high-THC weed,” Spivak-Bindorf noted.
Like others, Spivak-Bindorf said consumers must be educated that there are more important qualities than THC – a move that could reduce the incentive for growers and manufacturers to lab shop.
He’s also a proponent of state-run labs.
“Having a third-party lab that can actually look at samples and help ground things in truth is a huge part of that,” Spivak-Bindorf said.
Another way testing labs could reduce fraud is for lab operators to take samples at the cultivation facility, before growers would have the opportunity to inflate potency results, according to Spivak-Bindorf.
Labs have reported that some growers will submit adulterated samples that have been sprayed with THC distillate or coated with extra THC crystals, for example.
The push for cannabis flower to test at 25% or more “gets crazy,” Spivak-Bindorf said.
His lab recently participated in a study that analyzed nearly 90,000 samples of cannabis across six U.S. states with legal marijuana markets.
Flower testing with more than 25% total THC is in the 93rd percentile, which means it’s rare,” Spivak-Bindorf said.
Flower testing with as high as 35% THC is above the 99th percentile – yet product labels often show such a potency level.
“Potency inflation, which can increase the value and salability of your product, it does get a little questionable once you start digging,” he said.
Bart Schaneman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.