Tag Archives: lab shopping

The Inflated THC Crisis Plaguing California Cannabis

By Erik Paulson, Josh Swider, Zachary Eisenberg
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Fraud

The THC content you see on a label when you walk into a dispensary? There is a very good chance the number is false.

In every state with regulated cannabis, there is a requirement to label the potency of products so consumers can make informed purchasing and medicating decisions. The regulations usually state that the THC/cannabinoid content on the label must be within a particular relative percent difference of the actual tested results for the product to be salable. In California, that threshold is +/- 10%.

The problem is, with all the focus on THC percentage in flower and concentrate products, enormous pressure has been placed on cultivators and manufacturers to push their numbers up. Higher numbers = higher prices. But unfortunately, improving their growing, extraction and formulation processes only gets companies so far. So, they proceed to ‘lab shop’: giving their business to whichever lab provides them the highest potency.

There are roughly 50 Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) licensed labs in the state, and competition is fierce to maintain market share in a maturing and plateauing industry. Whereas competition used to be healthy and revolved around quality, turnaround time and customer service, now it’s essentially become a numbers game. As a result, many labs have sacrificed their scientific integrity to chase what the clients want: higher THC potency results without contaminant failures. The practice has become so prevalent that labs openly advertise their higher potency values to gain customers without fear of recourse. Here are two examples:

 

Over a year ago, a few labs fed up with what was happening got together to determine the extent of the potency inflation issue. We proactively purchased and tested over 150 randomly chosen flower samples off dispensary shelves. The results were staggering. Eighty-seven percent of the samples failed their label claims (i.e., were >10% deviant of their labeled values), with over half of the samples >20% deviant of their labeled THC values (i.e., over 2x the legal permitted variance). Additionally, our labs found multiple cases of unreported category 1 pesticides in some of the analyzed samples at multiple times the legal limit – a significant public health concern. The deceit was not limited to small cultivators trying to get by but also some of the industry’s biggest brands.

The same issues and economic conditions are in play for concentrates. Manufacturers of these products also hunt for the highest D9 THC values because wholesale prices for distillate are determined by THC content: <86% for the lowest value, 86-88%, 88-90% and >90%, with a new price point for over 94%. As a result, consumers can walk into a dispensary and find concentrates like the one shown below that report>99% total cannabinoids (>990mg/g) and contains almost 10% additional terpenes. You don’t have to be an analytical chemist to realize those numbers add up to well over 100%, which is physically impossible.

Blame

Everyone can agree that the system is broken, but who is at fault? Should the blame be placed on dispensaries, many of whom use THC % as their only purchasing or marketing metric? Or on cultivators, manufacturers and distributors, who seek the highest results possible rather than the most accurate ones? Or on the labs themselves, who are knowingly reporting inflated results?

Ultimately, the individual businesses are acting in their own self-interest, and many are participating in this practice simply to stay afloat. Dispensaries can’t reasonably be expected to know which results are inflated and which are not. Cultivators and manufacturers feel obligated to use labs that provide them with the highest results; otherwise, they’re putting themselves at a disadvantage relative to their competitors. Likewise, labs that aren’t willing to inflate their numbers have to be ready to watch customers walk out the door to maintain their principles – an existential dilemma for many.

The primary reason why potency inflation has become so prevalent is that there have been no negative repercussions for those that are cheating.  

The axiom is true – don’t hate the player, hate the game. Unlike most businesses, testing labs operating with integrity want meaningful regulations and oversight to assure a level playing field. Without them, the economics force a race to the bottom where labs either have to inflate more and more or go out of business. Since 2016, the DCC (formerly BCC) has taken zero meaningful actions to discourage or crackdown on potency inflation— not a single recall of an inflated product or license suspension of an inflating lab— so predictably, the problem has gotten progressively worse over time.

So, to answer the question above – who is at fault for our broken system? The answer is simple: the DCC.

Inaction

In the Fall of 2021, we began engaging with the DCC to address the industry’s potency inflation concerns. The DCC requested we provide them with direct evidence of our accusations, so we collected and shared the flower data mentioned above. The Department tested the same batches off the shelf and confirmed our results. Somehow not a single recall was issued – even for the batches containing category 1 pesticides.

We pushed for more accountability, and DCC Director Nicole Elliott assured us steps were being taken: “The Department is in the process of establishing a number of mechanisms to strengthen compliance with and accountability around the testing methods required of labs and will be sharing more about that in the near future.”

Instead, we got a standardized cannabinoid potency method (mandated by SB 544) that all labs will be required to use. On the surface, a standardized methodology sounds like a good thing to level the playing field by forcing suspect labs into accepting generally accepted best practices. In reality, however, most labs already use the same basic methodology for flower and concentrate cannabinoid profiling and inflate their results using a variety of other mechanisms: selective sampling, using advantageous reference materials, manipulating data, etc. Furthermore, the method mandated is outdated and will flatly not work for various complex matrices such as gummies, topicals, beverages, fruit chews and more. If adopted without changes, it would be a disaster for manufacturers of these products and the labs that test them. Nevertheless, the press release issued by the DCC reads as though they’ve earned a pat on the back and delivered the silver bullet to the potency inflation issue.

Here are a few more meaningful actions the DCC could take that would help combat potency inflation:

  • Perform routine surveillance sampling and testing of products off of store shelves either at the DCC’s internal lab or by leveraging DCC licensed private labs.
  • Recall products found to be guilty of extreme levels of potency inflation.
  • Conduct in-person, unannounced audits of all labs, perhaps focusing on those reporting statistically higher THC results.
  • Conduct routine round-robin studies where every lab tests the same sample and outliers are identified.
  • Shutdown labs that are unable or unwilling to remediate their potency inflation issues.

For some less disciplinary suggestions:

  • Remove incentives for potency inflation, like putting a tax on THC percentage
  • Set up routine training sessions for labs to address areas of concern and improve communication with the DCC

Fight

Someone might retort – who cares if the number is slightly higher than it should be? No one will notice a little less THC in their product. A few counterpoints:

  1. Consumers are being lied to and paying more for less THC.
  2. Medical cannabis users depend on specific dosages for intended therapeutic effects.
  3. Ethical people who put their entire lives into cultivating quality cannabis, manufacturing quality products and accurately testing cannot compete with those willing to cheat. If things get worse, only the unethical actors will be left.
  4. Labs that inflate potency are more likely to ignore the presence of contaminants, like the category 1 pesticides we found in our surveillance testing.
  5. This single compound, delta-9 THC, is the entire reason why this industry is so highly regulated. If we are not measuring it accurately, why regulate it at all?

We will continue to fight for a future where quality and ethics in the cannabis industry are rewarded rather than penalized. And consumers can have confidence in the quality and safety of the products they purchase. Our labs are willing to generate additional surveillance data, provide further suggestions for improvement in regulations/enforcement, and bring further attention to this problem. But there is a limit to what we can do. In the end, the health and future of our industry are entirely in the hands of the DCC. We hope you will join us in calling on them to enact meaningful and necessary changes that address this problem.

Lab Shopping: Highlighting the Need for Checks and Balances in Cannabis

By Josh Swider
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Cannabis, we have a problem. Legalizing adult use cannabis in California caused the demand for high-potency cannabis to increase dramatically over the last several years. Today, many dispensary buyers enforce THC minimums for the products that they sell. If smokeable flower products don’t have COAs proving the THC levels are above 20% or more, there is a good chance many dispensaries won’t carry them on their shelves. Unfortunately, these kinds of demands only put undue pressure on the industry and mislead the consumer.

Lab Shopping: Where the Problems Lie

Lab shopping for potency analysis isn’t new, but it has become more prevalent with the increasing demand for high-potency flower over the last couple of years. Sadly, many producers submit valid, certified COAs to the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), which show two to three times the actual potency value.

At InfiniteCAL, we’ve purchased products from dispensary shelves and found significant discrepancies between the analysis we perform and the report submitted to the BCC by the producer. So, how can this happen? Several factors are creating the perfect storm in cannabis testing.

Problems with Potency

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. It is alarming for cultivation pioneers and ethical labs to see producers and profit-hungry testing facilities falsifying data to make it more appealing to the unaware consumer.

Basically, what’s happening is growers are contacting labs and asking, “I get 30% THC at this lab; what can you do?” When they see our COA reporting their flower tested lower than anticipated, they will go to another lab to get higher test results. Unfortunately, there are all too many labs that are willing to comply.

I recently saw a compliant COA that claimed that this particular flower was testing at 54% THC. Understanding cannabis genetics, we know this isn’t possible. Another product I reviewed claimed that after diluting an 88% THC distillate with 10-15% terpenes, the final potency test was 92% THC. You cannot cut a product and expect the potency to increase. Finally, a third product we reviewed claimed 98% total cannabinoids (while only looking at seven cannabinoids) with 10% terpenes for a total of 108% of the product.

These labs only make themselves look foolish to professionals, mislead laymen consumers and skirt under the radar of the BCC with basic mathematical errors.

The Pesticide Predicament

Frighteningly, inflating potency numbers isn’t the most nefarious testing fraud happening in the cannabis industry. If a manufacturer has 1000 liters of cannabis oil fail pesticide testing, they could lose millions of dollars – or have it retested by a less scrupulous lab.

Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

As the industry continues to expand and new labs pop up left and right, cultivators and manufacturers have learned which labs are “easy graders” and which ones aren’t. Certain labs can miss up to ten times the action level of a pesticide and still report it as non-detectable. So, if the producer fails for a pesticide at one lab, they know four others won’t see it.

In fact, I’ve had labs send my clients promotional materials guaranteeing compliant lab results without ever receiving a sample for testing. So now, these companies aren’t just tricking the consumer; they are potentially harming them.

An Easy Fix

Cannabis testing is missing just one critical factor that could quickly fix these problems – checks and balances. The BCC only needs to do one of two things:

Verifying Lab Accuracy

InfiniteCAL also operates in Michigan, where the Marijuana Regulatory Agency (MRA) has already implemented a system to ensure labs are maintaining the highest testing standards. The MRA will automatically flag all COAs which test above a certain percentage and require the product to be retested by multiple labs.

labsphotoLabs are required to keep a back stock of material. So, when test results come back abnormally high from Lab A, then Labs B, C and D are commissioned to retest the material to compare data. If Lab A reports 40% THC, but the other labs all report 18%, then it’s easy to see Lab A has made an error.

Secret Shopping

By simply buying products off the shelves and having them blind-tested by other labs, it would be simple for the BCC to determine if the existing COA is correct. They already have all the data in Metrc, so this would be a quick and easy fix that could potentially solve the problem overnight.

For example, at InfiniteCAL, we once purchased 30 samples of Blue Dream flower from different cultivators ranging in certified COA potencies from 16% to 38%. Genetically, we know the Blue Dream cultivar doesn’t produce high levels of THC. When we tested the samples we purchased, nearly every sample came back in the mid-teens to low 20% range.

Labs Aren’t Supposed to Be Profit Centers

At InfiniteCAL, we’ve contacted labs in California where we’ve uncovered discrepancies to help find and flush out the errors in testing. All too often, we hear the excuses:

  • “If I fix my problem, I’ll lose my clients.”
  • “I’m just a businessman who owns a lab; I don’t know chemistry.”
  • “My chemist messed up; it’s their fault!”

If you own a lab, you are responsible for quality control. We are not here to get rich; we are here to act as public safety agents who ensure these products are safe for the consumer and provide detailed information about what they choose to put in their bodies. Be professional, and remember you’re testing for the consumer, not the producer.

Washington Lab Conducts Transparency Study

By Aaron G. Biros
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Earlier this week Capitol Analysis Group, a cannabis-testing laboratory based in Lacey, Washington, announced they are conducting a “data-driven Lab Transparency Project, an effort to improve accuracy of cannabis testing results in the state through transparency and a new third-party auditing process,” according to a press release. They plan to look through the state’s traceability data to find patterns of deviations and possible foul play.

The project launch comes after Straightline Analytics, a Washington cannabis industry data company, released a report indicating they found rampant laboratory shopping to be present in the state. Lab shopping is a less-than-ethical business practice where cannabis producers look for the lab that will give them the most favorable results, particularly with respect to higher potency figures and lower contamination fail rates.“Lab shopping shouldn’t exist, because it is a symptom of lab variability,”

According to the press release, their report “shows that businesses that pay for the highest number of lab tests achieve, on average, reported potency levels 2.71% higher than do those that pay for the lowest number of lab tests.” They also found labs that provide higher potency figures tend to have the largest market share.

The Lab Transparency Project logo
The Lab Transparency Project logo

The goal of The Lab Transparency Project is to provide summaries of lab data across the state, shining a light in particular on which labs provide the highest potency results. “Lab shopping shouldn’t exist, because it is a symptom of lab variability,” says Jeff Doughty, president of Capitol Analysis. “We already have standards that should prevent variations in lab results and proficiency testing that shows that the labs are capable of doing the testing.” The other piece to this project is independent third party auditing, where they hope other labs will collaborate in the name of transparency and honesty. “Problems arise when the auditors aren’t looking,” says Doughty. “Therefore, we’re creating the Lab Transparency Project to contribute to honesty and transparency in the testing industry.”

Dr. Jim McRae, founder of Straightline Analytics, and the author of that inflammatory report, has been a vocal critic of the Washington cannabis testing industry for years now. “I applaud Capitol Analysis for committing to this effort,” says McRae. “With the state’s new traceability system up and running following a 4-month breakdown, the time for openness and transparency is now.” Dr. McRae will be contributing to the summaries of lab data as part of the project.

According to Doughty, the project is designed to be a largely collaborative effort with other labs, dedicated to improving lab standards and transparency in the industry.