by Gregory Frye
A few labs in the industry have a strong sense of credibility. Was your cannabis tested by a credible lab?
Do you really know what’s in that cannabis you picked up from the dispensary?
Pesticides, microbes, fungus, mold – remember the FDA isn’t involved in any of this.
And what about potency labels for that matter? Can you trust that this candy bar really has 250 mg of active ingredient?
And what about strains? Is some kind of standard being upheld? The little sign says Blue Dream, but is it really?
This is why I tell everybody to pick a dispensary that lab tests their cannabis. Accept no substitutes, right?
Pull back the curtain on the testing side of the industry, and you’ll find a complete mess – a disturbing mixture of incompetency and profiteering.
I talked to some of the top scientists in the industry who had some real eye-opening observations to share. Luckily they also came at me with possible solutions they’ve been working to actualize – solutions that involve you.
Solutions that involve all of us.
Too Many Phony Cannabis Labs
When Washington state recently implemented mandatory mold testing, it seemed like a sensible regulation.
Apparently, it was a much-needed move because Steep Hill’s lab in Seattle ended up failing about 40 percent of submitted samples for mold. Yikes!
But it gets worse:
“There were several other labs who said they were testing for mold, and they never failed anybody the entire time they were testing,” says Dr. Donald Land, chief scientific consultant at Steep Hill.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Dr. Land also dropped this little bombshell:
“And of course our clients don’t like the fact that they’re being held to a higher standard, so they stop working with us and they go test with people who are unable to find the mold.”
Not all of Steep Hill’s clients are like that, Land adds, but a disappointing number have left. “A good lab spends all the money to get it right and nobody uses them because they don’t want the correct answer that their stuff is contaminated,” Land says.
It kind of makes you wonder what else the labs are missing to keep their clients happy.
Disturbing Levels of Incompetency
Dr. Jeffrey Raber, who runs The Werc Shop – one of the top labs in the industry – has encountered a lot of other lab operators who simply do not have the technical acumen to be doing it the right way.
To get a good idea of how much incompetency the industry was dealing with, Raber conducted a little experiment – a secret shopper study.
Collaborating with Johns Hopkins University, they ran tests in both California and Washington on all the edibles they could find. They wanted to check the accuracy of each and every potency label.
“Something like 87 percent of the samples were NOT within 10 percent of what the labels claimed in terms of active ingredient per milligram,” Raber says.
Disturbed but not surprised, Raber published the results in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Raising awareness about this issue became the immediate goal.
“It’s extremely complicated to test cannabis effectively and most of the cannabis lab operators simply don’t have a strong chemistry background,” he says, estimating that maybe only 25 to 30 percent of the labs are actually doing a pretty good job.
“For example when you talk about edibles, there are so many different types of matrices that you have to deal with,” Raber says. “You can’t treat the ice cream the same way you treat a brownie or the same way you treat a gummy bear. It just doesn’t work that way.”
In other words, you can’t get the labeling right until you’ve got the testing right.
Learning How to Get It Right
A lot of Raber’s clients are actually shocked when they first start working together because they’re not used to working with a lab that asks all the pertinent questions.
Some of the clients appreciate the opportunity to get the testing right, Raber explains. Others will go their own way, not wanting to deal with the expense if it isn’t required (every state has different testing regulations, some more relaxed than others).
“But the clients who do stay, the ones who want to be responsible and different than everyone else end up realizing that with proper lab testing they can further optimize the dosage levels of their product, essentially taking their product further and making more money in the end,” Raber says.
Proper Testing Shouldn’t Be That Expensive
“Cultivate a good relationship with a laboratory,” advises Dr. Robert Martin, co-founder of CW Analytical. “The labs are going to find the information about your product and help you to start understanding the things you need to know to become medicinally and economically safe.”
Martin emphasizes the value of economy because he sees a lot of cannabis entrepreneurs who don’t always know what they’re doing.
“A lot of people get into this and don’t understand business planning. They don’t understand budgets or the simplest things about running a business, and that’s why testing scares them,” he says. “But testing should only be a light bill. And if it’s more than that you need to find a new lab.”
Dr. Martin tells me how he can check a whole pound of pot for everything at just 28.7 cents per gram. “If you can’t afford that to find whether your product is safe or not, then your business plan is askew,” he says. “And if you don’t test, you don’t care about your patients. That’s the new reality.”
And even if your pot does come back contaminated, as long as there are no pesticides on it, Martin’s lab might be able to offer you a contingency plan to still use the product in a safe way.
Protecting Medical Cannabis Patients
Martin is obviously a huge advocate for cannabis patients. In fact, that’s the whole reason he got into cannabis testing in the first place – after spending 30 years on quality and assurance in the food industry.
“A lot of my friends started getting ill and were asking me about the quality of cannabis and I couldn’t answer it,” Martin says. “So I got a card and went around asking questions and nobody answered in the right way. So we created a laboratory and here we are today.”
Six years later, Martin continues to see a huge upsurge of real patients in California. “I’ve got people bringing their children into the laboratory for us to test their cannabis oil that they’re shooting down the throats of two-year-olds to stop 200 seizures a month. I’m seeing cancer patients talk about recovery,” Martin says.
“There are a lot of people who are really sick getting involved in cannabis, and you don’t want to give them a myth or a lie; you want them to have the truth.”
Striving for High Quality Standards
For the longest time, Martin continues, labs were only concerned with potency because that’s what clients wanted to know. “They didn’t care if there were pesticide residues, they didn’t care if there were bacterial or fungal contaminants – they just wanted to know how strong it was.”
By Martin’s estimation he and countless others had been dealing with dirty cannabis for decades. “But when you start seeing E. coli and salmonella associated with cannabis, it’s a real eye-opener,” he says. “The standards in the industry are still all over the place. They’re not based on any science in most cases, and we’re trying to change that.”
Initiatives such as the Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories (ACCL) or Americans for Safe Access’s Patient Focused Certification (PFC) carry a ton of credibility among people who know lab testing best.
But until the feds get on-board, states continue to struggle to implement an adequate model.
“Some states require laboratories to be ISO-certified, and while this proves you can do the same thing over and over, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing the right thing with cannabis,” Dr. Jeffrey Raber says. “So accuracy is still a problem.”
But Raber does see some states, such as Nevada, Connecticut, and Maryland, which appear to be getting it right. “Washington set up a good structure, they just didn’t make sure the labs could do their job the right way,” Raber says.
Do We Have a Solution in Sight?
Until cannabis is federally approved, how do we get it right?
In addition to raising awareness, Raber suggests approaching the problem from two sides:
#1) What has the state or any other governing body done to approve the lab?
#2) And what does the approval actually mean? Hopefully the labs would then be consistently checked for competency and efficacy.
But as long as cannabis remains federally prohibited, states will be forced to deal with this on their own, and for the most part that hasn’t been going very well.
And although the average consumer or patient may feel helpless, they can always ask dispensaries or producers to show them lab results or even bring samples into the lab themselves if they want to check a producer. Some labs even give direct patients a discount.
Producers can also check their labs by giving them different samples under different names at different times and testing them to see how accurate they are – although there will be some natural variation, especially depending on which part of the plant the sample came from.
The Future of Cannabis Lab Testing
Establishing a standard in cannabis lab testing is very much a work in progress, but even though it’s a complicated situation, Raber doesn’t want anybody to feel hopeless.
“It’s going to take a little while to work through it the best way, but we are headed in the right direction, and people know it needs to be done,” he says.
“There are people working on the problems and I think we’ll see some good examples of more labs doing things the right way in the not-too-distant future.”
The biggest thing cannabis advocates can do to ensure safer testing standards is to lobby for the end of federal prohibition.
“Cannabis testing is all over the place because of the federal status,” Donald Land says. “The best thing we can do is get the law changed and that requires a lot of congressmen and senators getting phone calls and letters from their constituents to change things on a federal level. It’s still a political battle.”