Choice of industry professional to oversee Massachusetts marijuana testing raises questions

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Image of a lab technician at a microscope holding a cannabis nugget with tweezers next to testing beakers

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The cannabis business background of Massachusetts’ director of marijuana testing is raising eyebrows among industry watchers already concerned about the way state regulators are treating MJ companies.

James Kocis became the director of testing for the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) last October after years of working in the marijuana testing industry.

At a legislative hearing last week, a lobbyist representing local testing labs called the CCC “unpredictable” and “unaccountable.”

A testing industry executive, meanwhile, alleged that Massachusetts faces “a big problem” of marijuana businesses shopping for favorable lab results – and that hiring a former lab employee to fix the situation at the very least presents the appearance of a possible conflict.

Before being tapped as the state’s marijuana testing director, Kocis worked as a manager for several years at Green Analytics, a cannabis lab in Framingham.

Green Analytics’ testing practices have come under scrutiny as part of a wider problem involving inflated THC results and so-called lab shopping.

The lab has changed names several times and, until earlier this year, was the local franchisee for once-prominent national testing brand Steep Hill Labs.

Steep Hill, for its part, said earlier this year it is no longer in the cannabis testing business.

Last September, Kocis resigned from Green Analytics, which at the time was doing business as Steep Hill.

He started at the CCC the following month.

‘Capable and qualified’

In an emailed statement, a CCC spokesperson defended the hire, noting Kocis’ industry experience is “valuable expertise which made him a capable and qualified candidate for the role.”

Kocis “was fully transparent” during the hiring process and “no longer maintains any professional or financial ties with his former employers or their previous owners,” the spokesperson added.

“Kocis has not participated in any investigations regarding Green Analytics. To ensure there are no perceived conflicts, he has recused himself from directly working with that ITL (independent testing lab).”

The state has 12 licensed independent testing labs, according to CCC data.

Cheating and inflation

For years, testing labs across the country have been accused of inflating THC numbers to please producers and dispensaries – some of which have also been implicated in cheating lab tests.

With no standard process and little oversight from the state, labels for Massachusetts cannabis products overstated THC percentages by as much as a third in the state, according to a December 2022 investigation by CommonWealth magazine.

The magazine also found contaminated products cleared for sale on dispensary shelves.

“The findings suggest that marijuana consumers cannot rely with any confidence on product labels,” the magazine wrote.

The issue of “lab shopping” is an acknowledged problem within the marijuana industry nationwide.

The practice involves cannabis companies seeking out a testing facility that will deliver inflated THC numbers and/or overlook contaminants.

Speaking on background, several Massachusetts marijuana industry observers and players said Green Analytics was “known” to be a lab where a cannabis company could find “friendly” results.

Green Analytics could not be reached for comment.

A phone message left at a listing for the lab was not returned.

‘Just like any other industry’

Kocis’ appointment “doesn’t present issues in and of itself,” said Dan Delaney, a former state health department policy manager who now lobbies for cannabis companies.

“But I don’t know that it addresses the concerns expressed about how Green Analytics operated under his watch.”

Earlier this year, Delaney formed a trade group representing testing labs.

“I think the concern is that the CCC doesn’t do much to give licensees confidence in who they (the CCC) hire and the level of oversight they have beyond the strict fiscal conflicts,” he added.

Other recent CCC appointments have also raised questions.

Shannon O’Brien, a former state treasurer who now chairs the CCC, consulted for two marijuana companies before her appointment last year.

Doug Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University who focuses on cannabis industry rules and regulations, told MJBizDaily in an interview that appointing a regulator from the industry that’s supposed to be regulated can raise questions about independence – but that’s hardly unique to the marijuana space.

“There’s a long history of concerns that regulated industries end up co-opting their regulators,” he said, adding there’s an inherent catch-22:

  • Appoint an outsider and be accused of empowering someone unqualified for the job.
  • Appoint an insider and face questions of neutrality.

In that way, “cannabis is now getting like every other regulated industry,” Berman added.

More needed to solve ‘big problem’

Massachusetts lawmakers are currently debating adding another layer of oversight for state cannabis regulators.

Two bills introduced earlier this year in the state Legislature – known as the General Court – would create an auditor, independent of CCC Executive Director Shawn Collins, to investigate claims involving the agency.

At a hearing of those two bills last week before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy, Mike Kahn, the CEO and founder of MCR Labs, a Green Analytics rival, openly accused the CCC of “waste, fraud and abuse.”

Kahn noted that one week after he raised concerns back in March over the CCC’s effectiveness and independence from the industry during a presentation at NECANN, a major northeastern cannabis conference, CCC inspectors arrived for an unannounced and retaliatory inspection at MCR Labs.

At last week’s legislative hearing, Delaney – the lobbyist now representing testing labs – called the CCC “unpredictable, arbitrary and unaccountable.”

A CCC spokesperson said last week that there are “several ongoing enforcement matters regarding MCR Labs,” declining to comment further.

MCR Labs had at least one documented run-in with the CCC – in 2019 over improper cannabis disposal.

In an interview with MJBizDaily, Kahn said Massachusetts has a “big problem with lab shopping.”

Hiring a former lab employee to solve the problem creates at least the “perception” of a possible conflict of interest, he said.

“Whatever the CCC does is going to be questioned,” he said.

“We need the public to trust in their process and trust they’re taking lab shopping seriously.”

Chris Roberts can be reached at chris.roberts@mjbizdaily.com.