Lab Cannabis Testing

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Should we trust cannabis testing results for product potency?

Customers comment often that the coolest quirk of legalization is cannabis testing. Don’t guess which strain is fire: our consumers feel it only takes a quick compare/contrast of the tiny test results on the back of each baggie before they know which product is powerfully potent. But how effective is that?

Experts across the state have raised their collective eyebrow, questioning the accuracy of these tests by up to 10%. Any budtender will tell you, if you have four different grams for sale, it doesn’t matter if gram A is the frostiest. The highest testing will sell out first.

Customers rely heavily on printed numbers,” a Pot Shop budtender explained. “I’ve looked a customer in the eye and explicitly said, ‘I’ve tried all of these. Don’t believe the numbers. This one is the most potent,’ only to have them nod along and grab the highest testing anyway. Even when it clearly won’t look, taste, or smoke as good.” This attitude proliferates through the cannabis community.

But I thought numbers don’t lie?

Due to regulations, most consumers put blind faith in the numbers on each bag, but mounting evidence suggests we shouldn’t. “There are clear indications that a large number of potency values are higher than reality,” Donald Land, a chemistry professor at UC Davis and part-owner of Steep Hill Labs, told Seattle Weekly. “That’s not because of errors, that’s intentional.”

The issues stem from laws requiring regulations, without laws clearly defining regulatory standards. That means Washington says that cannabis must be tested, but doesn’t yet specify how. Through this grey area, laboratories around the state (and in other cannabis-friendly states) can pad their numbers, ensuring growers return to that lab for more fast-selling lab results.

Not only that, but the natural variations of a plant means that differences will occur flower-to-flower on the same plant. Just like how one rose bush could produce five flowers. The top flower might grow to be enormous and fragrant. But another flower could look sickly and only half bloom, from the same plant. That happens with cannabis too. The plant’s biological components vary enormously. Yet the state only requires tests of one bud from one strain. This leaves space for natural variability and major inaccuracy.

So what is WA State going to do about testing?

In light of testing inconsistencies, the WA Liquor and Cannabis Control Board have proposed requiring labs to test three samples of each product. According to Joanna Eide, the coordinator for the LCB: “The hope is that [average] is a more accurate potency of the plant.”

But Land has reservations about this change. “Just doing the three samples alone won’t solve the problem of bad actors. Bad actors can manipulate three measurements just as easily as they can manipulate one,” he says. And he’s right. Since nothing stops labs from using “business-friendly” results currently, nothing would stop them continuing that practice.

Others have suggested that the three samples be tested by different labs, ensuring independent numbers, and (theoretically) more honest averages. The conversation, however, is ongoing.

Currently, the LCB has opened up the topic of cannabis regulations to the masses. A public hearing will be held 11 January 2017, before a vote on 25 January. If you have opinions on the validity of cannabis testing (and as a consumer, you should), contact the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Control Board.


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