The Industry’s Dirty Secret: Lab ShoppingIs it really a dirty little secret if everyone is doing it?
For those who have been in the cannabis industry since day one, the concept of lab shopping is definitely not new. But with more states than ever before opening adult-use markets, lab shopping is increasingly a serious concern — for consumers, for producers, and for labs themselves.
In the short term, lab shopping is helping companies sell products and labs stay afloat. But the long-term effects of lab shopping are extremely troubling. It erodes consumer trust and the entire industry's integrity. Cannabis labs need just as much regulation as the producers and extractors — but there has been little oversight to date.
What is Lab Shopping?
Lab shopping in the cannabis world is the less-than-ethical practice of choosing labs based on favorable results. For example, as a cultivator, you may divide a sample among several different labs and then choose to list the highest potency results with METRC and on the Certificate of Analysis (COA).
Companies may also shop around for labs that pass a sample for heavy metals or pesticides — even when that same sample has failed elsewhere.
Laboratories also play into this game to improve their competitive advantage in a crowded testing market. If labs promise better test results, they keep customers returning for more.
A Lack of Regulation Encouraging Industry-Wide Issue Lab Shopping
Kim Stuck, Founder and CEO of Allay Consulting, started her career in Colorado as one of the country's first cannabis regulators. Throughout nearly a decade of work (first as a regulator, now as a consultant), she has first-hand experience with the issues related to inadequate lab regulation.
Even if the industry is now seeing an increasingly rigorous set of quality and safety standards for cultivators and extractors, "There is a huge gap in regulation when it comes to labs," says Stuck.
If third-party lab testing is an integral aspect of a regulated industry, how can different labs report different test results?
At the moment, there are no industry-wide testing standards. Every lab can use a process, sample size, equipment type, and cleaning standards. As a result, the methods and protocols used by one laboratory can (and do) deliver substantially different results to those used by another.
Lab Shopping Increasingly Hurts Labs with Integrity
Stuck sees the implications of lab shopping across every market, new and old alike. It's a whirlwind caused by the intersection of consumer demand for increasingly more THC, no federal oversight, and a flooded marketplace.
And in all honesty, lab shopping is pulling the entire industry down, including the labs themselves. As Stuck has witnessed, "Labs that are following what they are supposed to, giving correct results to people, and actually trying to protect the industry from recalls, they are the ones that are going out of business."
Some of the nation's most established labs are folding because they don't want to compete against other labs with less-scrupulous processes. As only the most recent example, CannaSafe, a California laboratory, announced the decision to close its doors in June 2022.
In an interview with Analytical Cannabis, CannaSafe's Chief Science Officer stated, "the issue of lab shopping and ownership deciding not to play in that arena ultimately led to the closure." Unfortunately, its closure comes just as California is actually attempting to address the issue.
The Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) is working to standardize cannabinoid test methods by 2023. Nicole Elliott, Director at DCC, was recently quoted as saying, "Individual, licensed laboratories use different methods which may produce inconsistent results and inaccurate data on cannabis cannabinoid content. DCC is working to change that, so there is greater integrity in the market, accurate information for consumers, and confidence among stakeholders."
At the time of writing, California is thus far the only state undertaking any cannabis lab regulation. Without the entire country tackling this issue head-on, the integrity of legalized cannabis is at stake.
Federal Guidance the Only Solution
As Stuck sees it, federal oversight is the only solution. As with other highly regulated industries, federally issued guidelines set the bar for methodology, equipment, and certifications. These ensure everyone plays by the same rules, making it difficult to fudge the numbers while also upholding established scientific standards.
While it will likely be many years before any federal shifts happen for THC, the CBD and hemp sector is supposedly on the cusp of regulation. We have been awaiting updates from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since the passage of the Farm Bill in 2018.
When the FDA eventually issues its guidance for CBD, it will have direct ramifications across adult-use and medical markets. There is an assumption that these federal CBD regulations will be easily adaptable across the entire cannabis landscape, THC included.
But, federal regulation is slow. Stuck explained, "I was personally hoping that the FDA, in writing the CBD and hemp standards for products, would be addressing the issue. But, unfortunately, we've been waiting over three years for those, and we don't even know when they're coming out or if they are thinking of addressing this issue."
Until federal regulation comes through, Stuck suggests that the lab industry focus on establishing Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). It's a system used in other regulated industries (like pharmaceuticals) to ensure "that products are consistently produced and controlled according to quality standards."
Onus on Cannabis Companies to Do Better
Until the federal (or even state) government steps up to regulate an increasingly wild lab testing industry, it's up to cultivators, extractors, and manufacturers to demand accurate, consistent results based on sound scientific standards.
It's a big ask, but not an impossible one. After all, accurate test results offer increased consumer satisfaction and protection against a severe product recall event.
And good third-party labs exist. They just might not be the ones with the largest marketing budgets. Nor will they be the labs promising "great potencies."
Stuck only works with ethical, unbiased, and evidence-based labs as a consultant. She made sure to mention Agricore and Botanicore (now under the SC Labs umbrella) as two of the best options in Colorado. With a bit of research, you can find cannabis labs still committed to science, safety, and accuracy.