Kristina Etter   |   June 25, 2021

Testing for Integrity: Ethics in Cannabis and Hemp Labs

A lack of cohesive testing standards and a push for potency creates the perfect storm for consumer deception and cannabis and hemp analysis fraud.
Kristina Etter spent 20 years in corporate IT with a niche in mobile technology and IoT in agriculture. Today, she combines her love of technology with a passion for cannabis as the Editorial Director for Cannabis Tech.

Separating the legal cannabis market from the illicit market begins with testing and standards. As with other consumable products, conscientious consumers want to know what they are putting into their bodies. As cannabis and hemp consumers are often instructed to review the lab reports, questions regarding lab integrity and “pay-to-play” scenarios suggest the COA may not be accurate.

The Push for Cannabis Potency

In a recent article in the Cannabis Industry Journal, Josh Swider from InfiniteCAL summarized some of the problems he’s witnessed regarding lab testing and inaccuracies in certified COAs submitted to the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), including

  • a compliant COA claiming flower testing at 54% THC. Understanding cannabis genetics, we know this isn’t possible
  • another product claiming a 92% THC potency contained an 88% THC distillate diluted with 10-15% terpenes. You cannot cut a product and expect the potency to increase
  • a third product claimed 98% total cannabinoids with 10% terpenes for a total of 108%

Swider blames the problem on two major factors. First, he explained that many California dispensaries are refusing to carry flower that doesn’t test above 20% THC. Secondly, he believes a lack of consumer education is only fueling the fire. He stated, “Many consumers still don’t understand that THC potency is not the only factor in determining quality cannabis, and they are unwittingly contributing to the demand for testing and analysis fraud.”

Swider also pointed out that THC potency errors are likely the least of the problems, as many producers have learned to “lab-shop” for the analysis that serves them best. So when a product fails for contaminants at one lab, they move on to another lab that doesn’t necessarily test for the same panel of contaminants. In other words, what fails in one lab, may not fail in the next.

Lack of Hemp Regulation

Cannabis Tech recently spoke with Jeff Gray, CEO of SC Labs, and he believes the discrepancies aren’t necessarily due to nefarious motives. He stated, “The industry is developing its own testing methodology on a lab-by-lab basis, using different instruments, running different methods, with a certain amount of flexibility – and you do end up with an inherent variability.”

Gray believes licensed California cannabis producers likely produce some of the cleanest, safest cannabis in the country due to strict regulations enforced by the BCC. However, he said, “Hemp is very different. What are the requirements for hemp? There aren’t any except verifying that it tests below .3% THC and qualifies as hemp.”

Although Gray agrees the industry needs the final rulings by the FDA to define what is allowed, he also understands the need for standards to be set on a state and federal level for hemp products.

“Zero, point-three percent THC should not designate a safe product, and that belief is a disservice to the consumer,” he emphasized.

Data and Transparency, Key to Future

Swider suggests that inaccurate lab analysis could be swiftly corrected with just a few simple checks and balances systems. By requiring blind, third-party re-testing of samples that test above a certain THC level, the BCC could quickly identify the labs that consistently report excessively high potency. While random screening of products purchased from the shelves of dispensaries could help identify where contaminants slip through the cracks.

At SC Labs, Gray foresees a future where data helps consumers make informed choices. In a recent press release, the company announced that the company had received ISO (International Organization for Standardization) accreditation for a comprehensive hemp/CBD testing panel that combines the regulatory requirements of all states that publish hemp testing rules.

He stated, “As an industry, we’ve been advocating for national, standardized, and transparent testing regulations for years now. The government has been slow to respond, so we decided it was time to act. The test we’ve created meets or exceeds the requirements of most states, and that will give consumers greater peace of mind. No one else can say that right now.” 

The Need to Know

Regardless of what they are consuming, buyers deserve to know what is in the products they buy. As standards and regulations will undoubtedly improve the information available to consumers, they still must rely on the integrity and ethics of the producers and the labs to provide accurate data.

 

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