Cannabis to Focus on THC Products
Cannabis testing laboratories are partly responsible for the marijuana industry’s focus on delivering high-THC products to consumers, consistent with industry officials.
That’s because state regulators lack mechanisms to check the accuracy of private laboratory testing results.
Industry officials said that without state-run labs to stay tabs on their private counterparts, cannabis growers and merchandise manufacturers would likely keep shopping around for private labs that deliver high THC potency results.
“On the lab side, inflated potency results that aren’t accurate are happening everywhere,” said Jill Ellsworth, founder, and CEO of Denver-based Willow Industries, which provides marijuana and hemp decontamination technology.
Ellsworth said it might be a “great idea” for state cannabis regulators to use a third-party testing lab for auditing private laboratories.
California and Colorado have taken stabs at operating their state-run testing labs to audit the THC-potency test results of personal labs.
But most state programs don’t operate their labs to verify results.
The industry’s THC focus comes when scientists warn that high-THC marijuana is causing more people around the globe to become addicts.
Ellsworth, for her part, said consumer safety should take priority over THC potency.
She added that companies could then consider educating consumers about cannabinoids and the entourage effects of terpenes.
But Myron Ronay, CEO of BelCosta Labs, a cannabis testing lab in Newport Beach, California, warned against pushing too hard for terpenes to be the most quality indicator – although he would like to see product labels offer more information about terpene profiles.
“Are people visiting spray extra terpenes on their flower?” he asked. “Are labs visiting have incorrect terpene profiles?
“There’s plenty of risks inherent in the whole industry.”
Ronay said some cannabis in California sells with as high as 40% THC potency on the label.
“Which, I honestly don’t believe,” he said. Over 30% THC is feasible, consistent with Ronay.
But his staff has bought a flower labeled at 37% THC, gone back to the lab with it, and saw it test at 17%.
‘Gaming the system.’
In July, Steep Hill, Arkansas, was included in a class action lawsuit filed by three medical marijuana patients alleging the lab “intentionally inflates the amount of THC in its customer’s flower” on behalf of at least three growers named as defendants.
The allegations were rejected by Christian Poole, director of selling for Steep Hill, based in Berkeley, California, with locations in 10 states, Canada and Mexico.
“We have every belief that the lab we’re affiliated with in Arkansas has not broken any rules, that they’ve done things by the books,”
But, he added: “Lab shopping is certainly a real thing. It’s a problem in both Canada and the United States.”
Testing labs have many incentives to engage in that behavior, including getting additional business and charging more for favorable results, consistent with Poole.
But the broader question about the cannabis industry’s specialization in potency is an “important part of moving beyond where we currently stand and can even help eradicate some of the obvious ways of lab shopping to game the system,” he added.
Poole pointed to terpenes as a “major topic,” with a growing body of evidence that the chemical compounds play a crucial role in how consumers enjoy marijuana.
“There’s plenty of people who will argue that some of the best cannabis they’ve ever smoked was not a high-THC product,” he said.
“The evolution suggests brooding about terpenes as part of the picture.”
Poole argued that buyers who know a lot about marijuana and prefer a mix of THC and high terpene content should be driving that evolution of the market as well as pushing growers and retailers to make that type of flower available.
“You’d like people to be practicing what they preach and buying products that fit that description,” he said.
Poole also sees a possible downside: If the market shifts its attention to better terpene content, growers might start buying labs that give favorable terpene numbers.
Poole also works for Molecular Science Corp., a testing lab based in Toronto.
Health Canada has testing labs that the Canadian government contracts to investigate testing results.
For example, if a certificate of study comes in with a very high THC number, the regulators can check whether the results are legitimate.
Lev Spivak-Bindorf, co-founder and chief science officer for Ann Arbor, Michigan, cannabis testing laboratory PSI Labs, sees the matter with potency inflation coming from several aspects of the industry.
“No one knows where it begins and ends, but plenty of it is the consumers who want what they think is very potent cannabis,” he said.
Even calling the marijuana “potent” because it’s a high THC number is silly, consistent with Spivak-Bindorf.
He suggests watching THC and CBD ratios and other components in the plant, like terpenes and minor cannabinoids.
But even the prevailing concept cannabis is getting stronger is a myth, consistent with Spivak-Bindorf.
The heirloom-like landrace strains – grown for centuries – might be more prevalent today because of the wide availability of legal cannabis.
“We didn’t invent high-THC weed,” Spivak-Bindorf noted.
Like others, Spivak-Bindorf said consumers must be educated that there are more important qualities than THC – a move that would reduce the incentive for growers and manufacturers to lab shop.
He’s also a proponent of state-run labs.
“Having a third-party lab which will look at samples and help ground things in truth is a huge part of that,” Spivak-Bindorf said.
Another way testing labs could reduce fraud is for lab operators to take samples at the cultivation facility before growers would have the chance to inflate potency results, consistent with Spivak-Bindorf.
Labs have reported that some growers will submit adulterated samples sprayed with THC distillate or coated with extra THC crystals, for instance.
The push for cannabis flowers to check at 25% or more “gets crazy,” Spivak-Bindorf said.
His lab recently participated in a study that analyzed nearly 90,000 samples of cannabis across six U.S. states with legal marijuana markets.
Flower testing with quite 25% total THC is in the 93rd percentile, which suggests it’s rare,” Spivak-Bindorf said.
Flower testing with as high as 35% THC is above the 99th percentile – yet product labels often show such a potency level.
“Potency inflation, which may increase the value and salability of your product, it does get a touch questionable once you start digging,” he said.