Over the last few years, the cannabis industry has been plagued by contamination and testing scandals in just about every jurisdiction with legal access. One of the most prominent examples is California, where roughly 20 percent of tested batches failed state standards according to the latest data from the end of 2018. Most of the failures were thanks to inaccurate labeling, but about 25 percent of the failed cannabis products were rejected due to health concerns, thanks to unacceptable levels of to pesticide and solvent contamination.
In Michigan, a medical marijuana state, the story is not much different. Lawmakers are working around medical marijuana shortages, and allowing sales of untested products – yet, even a few tested products are failing. There have been multiple recalls already in 2019 due to chemical residues. California and Michigan are not alone; there are reports of tainted cannabis in just about every legal jurisdiction in North America.
Cannabis testing labs are playing an increasingly vital role in protecting the consumer from what could be potentially harmful contaminants. The industry, being so new, is still working through the kinks on how to safely do so. Despite the strict procedures requiring testing before sale, there are no industry-wide testing protocols. It is leading to some very different test results.
A Brief Overview of Cannabis Testing Requirements
Across North America, there is a patchwork of testing requirements depending on regional legislation. Canada, a federally regulated market, is relatively straightforward, but with 30 plus American states and counting with legal access, individual state regulations are complicated, to say the least.
Generally speaking, no matter the locale, cannabis and any cannabis-based products, intended for human consumption must be tested before sale, for the following contaminants:
- THC / CBD
Oregon, a state with comparatively clear regulations on testing, have broken out the requirements in much greater detail. Firstly, all flower and concentrates ready for direct sale to consumers require testing for all of the above plus moisture content. Secondly, any cannabis (flower or concentrate) directed towards further processing, must also pass a strict set of testing requirements. There are also unambiguous rules on how to handle failed products. Canada is another example, with transparent Limits of Quantification in parts per million for over 100 pesticides.
With no national or international cannabis guidelines (at least for the US), different state-level governing bodies are responsible for determining which pesticides are acceptable for use and which are not. Pesticide contamination is one of the major sticking points for producers. Many former black market producers who up until recently operated with no rules on pesticides, now must adapt to new growing techniques and new products to comply with regulations.
Canada has approved the use of 22 different options for marijuana; Washington state has an extensive 29-page list of federally regulated and state-approved pesticides for marijuana production, and California maintains a list of pesticides not registered for food use in in the state, or which fall on the groundwater restriction list. California also maintains a list of pesticides that are exempt from pesticide residue restrictions. No two jurisdictions look the same when it comes to controlling cannabis contaminants. These are only three examples, among dozens, which demonstrate the array of regulations over the same product.
The Challenges Facing Cannabis Testing Facilities
The science behind testing protocols for cannabis is struggling to keep up with demand. Bad press plagues the cannabis testing industry. A recent claim from a Canadian company, Scientus Pharma, indicated only 2 out of 14 samples of THC oil it tested were 100% fully activated. They discovered CBD oils fared even worse, with one containing no activated CBD. Activation is the key to many medicinal benefits, but testing for activation is not a standardized testing protocol. Neither is there a federally approved method for testing activation. While the claims from Scientus may merely be a marketing ploy, their preliminary results help to highlight issues with even the most basic potency testing in the industry.
In Oregon, the cannabis testing industry has faced a constant stream of negative attention since the opening of the legal market. In the early days, massive testing backlogs led to product shortages. There have also been more than a few cannabis testing labs whose licenses were revoked by the state. A recent report from Kelly O’Conner with Cannabis Industry Insider also sheds light on false potency reports which favor the producer. According to her insight, labs go so far as to ask what THC level the grower is looking to achieve. It leads her to question the 28 to 30 percent THC levels seen on dispensary shelves when few strains are known to accomplish this in reality.
Without any standard testing procedures, which apply not only within a state, but across North America, it’s likely cannabis testing facilities will continue to encounter scandals, discrepancies, and inaccuracies even if testing the same product. This ambiguity undoubtedly affects the industry in a much consumer broader way – consumers and lawmakers may both start to doubt the legitimacy of the product. The fledgling industry and the regulators who attempt to control it are still working to find effective methods to keep consumers safe and products. Laboratories must play catch up to consumer demand; politicians must adopt consistent testing regulations, and both must strive to keep the consumer safe.