The Inconsistency of Potency

The integrity of cannabis testing has been challenged by inflated THC numbers and rubber-stamped microbial tests

As more states legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational uses, laboratory testing has increasingly become a critical component of the industry — and in some cases, even more controversial than the plant itself.

Washington state, in particular, has made headlines over the past year with issues of doctored THC percentages and microbial results, but problems don’t stop at the Evergreen State’s borders.

With only a handful of state-certified testing labs, Oregon’s strict pesticide regulations have driven up the cost of doing business and have had a crippling impact across the industry. Alaska businesses face the challenge of legally transporting samples to testing labs, due to the state’s vast geography and limited road system. Colorado has also had issues with labs, albeit not as broadly publicized as those in Washington, says grower Anthony Franciosi, CEO of Honest Marijuana.

“There are still a lot of inconsistencies with potency even amongst the most highly regarded laboratories,” Franciosi says. “I have seen wild swings in results between products from the same batches at different labs. Other growers I speak with often have similar issues. It seems like the microbial side is a little more dialed in, but people are using a lot of different methods to pass those tests.”

These problems are causing headaches for new labs setting up in the East, says Andrew Rosenstein, CEO of Steep Hill Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

“What’s happened in Washington state — it’s an embarrassment for the entire lab industry,” Rosenstein says. “There is no room for (skewed results) in a medical cannabis state. It’s long overdue that physicians and people who understand compliance take over the lab industry and push it in the right direction.”

Non-mandatory QA samples: A processor’s new best friend

By Steven P. Fuhr

There’s a new lab testing option for legal cannabis products in Washington that very few producers and processors know about. Until recently, many labs were unfamiliar with it, too, but it could soon be their most requested test.

It’s referred to as a “non-mandatory QA sample,” and it could change the way flower, oil and infused products are tested.

About four months ago, my staff and I discovered that the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board would not allow lots to be retested if they had previously passed a quality assurance inspection. At first we wanted to retest a batch of CO2 oil we bought to verify its potency after some problems with dosing. We also wanted to retest infused edibles that passed, but didn’t have the amount of THC we wanted. There simply wasn’t a process to do it with the state’s traceability system.

Every Liquor and Cannabis Board examiner we spoke with said there was no way to do it. When I asked other operations how they dealt with this, I found that some tested their samples as a man on the street, rather than from their company. Some had more creative ways around the problem that are probably not state-approved. Needless to say, this was a problem for a lot of licensees.

After a few weeks, examiners came up with the non-mandatory QA sample test. It’s fairly simple and state examiners have a PowerPoint showing the process in the BioTrackTHC software.

The only real difference with the non-mandatory QA sample is that the results are not reported to the Liquor and Cannabis Board and you cannot create a label for them. Only the producer/processor and the testing lab see the results, and this gives business operators a whole new range of options.

For instance, we found the CO2 oil we bought was only 50% THC, rather than the 71% potency shown by lab tests. This showed why we had problems getting our potency right.

Now processors can retest a lot before buying it to ensure they’re getting what is being offered.

For edibles, we conducted three tests on one lot to make sure our potency was accurate, and only then did we submitted a final QA sample to generate certified results for labels.

Flower processors can use non-mandatory testing to see mold or other problems before sending lots for the final test. Non-mandatory testing gives producer/processors the option to solve problems before getting a black eye.

Most importantly, producer/processors can now verify that products are clean and safe before the test results go to the Liquor and Cannabis Board or the public. Companies can do real research and development before launching a product.

While each lot can only fail an official QA test twice, there’s no limit to the number of non-mandatory QA tests that can be performed and only the producer/processor and lab would know.

Non-Mandatory QA Sample tests may mean you’ll never show a failed product test again.

Steven P. Fuhr is the managing member of Toucan Farms, a state-licensed producer/processor in Washington.

Skewed results

James MacRae, a data scientist at Straight Line Analytics, discovered numerous red flags after examining public records of lab results in Washington. His analysis over a three-month period in 2015 showed four labs that didn’t fail any tests for microbial contamination, while two labs failed 44% of their tested samples — numbers that should have been similar throughout the industry, he says.

The worst of the four, according to MacRae’s data, Testing Technologies of Poulsbo, Washington, was shut down by the state Liquor and Cannabis Board last spring. It was recertified in November.

MacRae’s report shined a light on what many in the industry already knew — the loosely regulated testing arena was prime for businesses on both sides of the microscope to “game the system” with inflated cannabinoid levels or rubber-stamped microbial tests.

But the bigger question is: What to do about it?

The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board says it’s working on the problem. After MacRae released his report, the agency formed the Quality Assurance Work Group to look at possible solutions.

With input from the group, which met throughout 2016, the Liquor and Cannabis Board adopted emergency rules that officials say give it a stronger pathway for shutting down bad labs, including mandated proficiency testing of all labs on an ongoing basis.

Under the new rules, if a lab or science director is caught skewing results, or if a lab fails to maintain a passing proficiency test score in two out of three tests, the agency can suspend its certification or shut it down. But labs can get their certification back if they conduct an internal investigation and provide the Liquor and Cannabis Board with a deficiency report identifying the cause. If a lab remains shut down for six months, it can reapply for certification as a new entity.

Rosenstein says that still doesn’t go far enough and provides too much wiggle room for bad actors to get back into the system.

“One of the things we’re advocating in Maryland is a death penalty for any lab found doctoring results,” Rosenstein says. “We need very strong oversight and harsh penalties.”

Under Rosenstein’s preferred punishment, there would be no recertification for any lab caught cheating. The same standard would apply to growers who are caught working with a lab to get better results.

“The problem now is ignorance and greed,” Rosenstein says, “and we need to stop it.”

The need for broader standards

Dave Rheins, CEO of the Marijuana Business Association, says there are problems in many states because the industry lacks central, overarching standards. So far, because of marijuana’s illegal status, each state has made its own rules, which are often created by politicians rather than the scientific community.

“I think what we’ve got is rampant in the industry everywhere, and part of that is because we don’t know what we’re regulating,” Rheins says. “The potency issues bring in a whole host of other challenges, in terms of what gets reported and why. Even THC, CBD and other cannabinoids, we don’t really have a full understanding of what those mean to the consumer.”

Recreational consumers have been trained to buy cannabis based on high THC content. It’s largely a holdover from the black market days when higher THC meant more bang for the buck.

Cannabis enthusiasts argue that the average consumers need more education about terpenes and other cannabinoids, not just THC and CBD, in order to better understand the complex subject of potency.

Rheins thinks the industry will eventually move to classifying cannabis more like wine or agricultural products, with A, B and C grade levels, depending on the quality of the flower, rather than the cannabinoid content.

“Look at alcohol,” Rheins says. “People don’t buy wine based on alcohol content. It’s somewhat irrelevant. People buy wine based on the flavor, on branding and quality. That’s where we need to get to in the cannabis industry.”

While inconsistent potency results have frustrated the industry and created a certain level of distrust among the public, it’s unlikely that they’ll cause harm to a consumer. However, contaminated marijuana could be dangerous even to healthy consumers; and it could be deadly to a patient with a compromised immune system.

Pesticides, molds and other contaminants are a growing concern. Microbial and pesticide testing will likely become far more important than cannabinoid content as the industry grows, Rosenstein says.

Pesticides can change and become carcinogenic when exposed to fire from smoking, and more research is needed to determine which pesticides are the most dangerous.

Beyond that, Rosenstein adds, there’s also a human contamination factor.

“People don’t realize how much cannabis is actually handled or how many touch points there are for it,” Rosenstein says. “Dirty hands can cause lots of other things to go wrong. I think the incidence of cannabis-related disease is higher than people think. It’s plant matter. It’s going to come in contact with human beings and that can spread disease. If you want to keep people safe, you have to focus on best practices and safety.”

Some have suggested that federal oversight is really needed. As new states legalize, Rheins believes that will eventually happen. But in the meantime, the systems remain focused on THC and each state continues to set up its own rules.

Back in Washington, the Liquor and Cannabis Board is looking at other changes to stabilize the lab industry, including requiring ISO 17025 accreditation, which is an international standard for technical competency that mandates labs calibrate their equipment in a certain way, according to Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesman for the agency.

“This is an international standard that many environmental labs follow and will assist in ensuring best practices and methodologies are followed,” Carpenter says. “It will also be a condition of certification for labs. We are also making changes to how potency is tested and how the potency levels are calculated based on an average amount of three potency tests.”

Washington’s struggle

Part of the reason the problems have been so severe in Washington is because the state started out with a medical marijuana system that was almost entirely unregulated. When voters ushered in recreational marijuana, the state had to build the commercial industry, including the lab testing system, from scratch. States with highly regulated medical marijuana programs tend to have greater emphasis on accurate testing, Rosenstein says.

“It’s easier when you have a medical program to start with,” Rosenstein says. “It’s kind of like shoving a genie back in a bottle when you do it the other way.”

But causes and potential blame are widespread. Some fault the state for allowing any interested party to receive a grow license, regardless of experience or qualifications.

Others point to the unbalanced number of growers relative to retail stores. The high level of competition puts pressure on growers looking to bump their results up to the magic number of 20% THC.

In some cases, a bad test result can ruin a small business, because the marketplace seems to be driven by potency numbers.

And according to Gordon Fagras, CEO of Trace Analytics in Spokane, Washington, part of the problem is that the industry itself is too focused on THC content in flower.

“The price per gram (at the store) is based on THC content from labs,” he says, noting that growers often shop around for labs that have the friendliest results.

Pushing forward

Carpenter says future changes to the testing regulations could help resolve more of the issues in Washington. (The Liquor and Cannabis Board was scheduled to vote on several newly updated rules on Jan. 25, after this issue was printed.)

“We already have broad authority to regulate the industry and we have already taken steps to address this issue,” Carpenter says. “This industry is evolving and as that happens, we continue to look at how we can make improvements. We have partnered closely with the Department of Agriculture as we develop the regulatory framework for the marijuana market regarding labs, testing and pesticides.”

Rosenstein believes better standards will emerge as legalization expands in the more industrialized East Coast states. Those states have more political clout and can make a stronger push for federal action, he says.

“The industry is going to be watching what happens on the East Coast,” Rosenstein says. “If we create a culture of responsibility, it will be harder for labs to behave badly in other states.”

East Coast legalization will also open more avenues for scientific research and study in the United States, which will help the situation.

“I think the market has to sort itself out through study,” Rosenstein says. “I’m looking forward to when some of the major universities on the East Coast start looking at this plant and what it can do. The momentum is there. I just want to see this happen in a responsible and compliant fashion.”

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