a cannabis leaf in a Petri dish with beakers and other scientific glass on backlit tables

How Cannabis Labs Flunked the THC Test

5 minute read

The legal marijuana industry sold over $17 billion in 2020. For reference, the craft beer industry made around $22 billion and the vape e-cig market is worth around $7 billion. Suffice it to say, that’s a $h!t ton of money for a fledgling industry still deemed illegal on a federal level. While plenty of marijuana producers and sellers flourish legitimately within the confines of 13 legalized states, others have diverted from the straight and narrow. Amidst the exchange of all this cash, a skunky, dank stench has arisen, and certain players willing to game the system in order to maximize profits threaten the future integrity of a nascent industry on the precipice of its rocket launch debut. 

If the word corruption brings to mind political bribes and duffle bags full of cash, the weed industry’s most prevalent con is much more pernicious than a typical Netflix sub plot. THC inflation, the falsification of higher THC quantity, runs rampant, stealing straight from consumers’ wallets, a few dollars at a time.

What’s Cooking Inside Some Marijuana Labs

Cannabis in a petri dishFor consumer safety, states require producers to test for contaminants, pesticides and mold, as well as THC and cannabinoid potency. THC levels, more than any other factor, set the price for marijuana products due to market demand for extremely potent weed. 

According to a 2018 study on cannabis purchases in Washington, a 1 percent increase in THC potency resulted in a 1 to 2 percent increase in price per gram. In California, low-potency flower between 7 and 14 percent THC sold for an average of $5.31 per gram. Pot with more than 21 percent THC sold for an average of $11 per gram, according to an article by FiveThirtyEight.

Some of the less scrupulous labs cook their numbers to say marijuana products are higher in THC than they actually are. But why would a lab want to risk their reputation and livelihood to do such a thing in the first place?

State governments rely on for-profit labs to execute testing. And sellers must pay labs to test batches before those crystal-soaked buds make their way under a glass dispensary case. 

Turns out, they are only one half of the slimy equation. 

Failing a quality assurance test could mean a seller has to throw out an entire crop, and as mentioned, sellers make more with higher potency THC products. But labs also make more when they consistently dish out high-level THC ratings. If a lab returns less than desirable cannabinoid testing results, sellers will “lab shop” until they find a company that will fudge the numbers in their favor. 

Lab shopping sellers continue to give unethical labs their business. According to the FiveThirtyEight article, a Washington lab that gave out the highest THC levels increased its flower testing market share from 0 to 20 percent within a year. 

So far, the upside for both seller and lab to cheat is far too enticing. And without proper oversight in place, consumers continue to pay the price. 

And states are likely to grow more dependent on THC testing. For instance, the most recently legalized state, New York, plans on taxing marijuana based on THC content. In addition, many state legislators are rallying for a THC cap. It’s possible that taxing and capping THC may prevent THC inflation, but it’s simultaneously giving more control to some of the bad apple labs. 

A man holding tongs reaches for cannabis nugs on a scale next to jars of weed

Testing Flower is Flawed

Problems concerning accurately testing marijuana don’t begin and end with THC inflation alone.

Other challenges plague the industry. For one, each testing facility creates its own system, so even if analytics teams accurately report their own methods, different labs get different results. Also, the quality of cannabis isn’t consistent throughout the entire plant, much less the whole harvest. Sellers will cherry-pick a specific part of the batch to get tested. This isn’t necessarily reflective of the rest of the product, making the whole business of testing flower that much more muddled. 

The CBD industry has faced similar issues. While THC inflation isn’t a concern on the hemp side of cannabis, many CBD products contain more or less cannabidiol than the label states. For example, a small 2020 FDA study revealed 18 percent of the products tested contained less than 80 percent of the CBD listed on the label, and 37 percent included over 120 percent of the stated cannabinoid amount.

Another study by the National Institute of Health discovered 43 percent of products were under-labeled and 26 percent were over-labeled. Only 31 percent were accurately labeled. Vapes, in particular, were most often mislabeled, a striking 87 percent. 

Just like THC inflation, under-labeled products result in consumers paying more for something less than advertised.  The over-labeled products, however, suggest some mistakes are more a byproduct of a less than adequate extraction process or inaccurate testing rather than an overt attempt to manipulate.

On the surface, over-labeling may seem like a benefit to the consumer, but there are a few reasons why it’s an issue. Overdosing or an unpleasant psychoactive reaction to CBD is not a concern, but in some cases, over-labeling could be dangerous for those taking CBD with other medications. According to an article by Harvard Health News, a Penn State research team identified 139 medications that may be affected by cannabinoids. In some instances they may either enhance side effects or block the intended effects of other drugs. And like the THC industry, there are concerns over hemp labs ignoring contaminates as well.

Stopping THC Inflation and Poor Cannabis Testing

ISO accreditation ensures unbiased, impartial, scientifically valid results based on peer-to-peer comparison. Requiring all labs to acquire ISO accreditation would be a huge step forward. Old school auditing would also keep testing facilities honest and on their toes.

According to the FiveThirtyEight article, some marijuana industry innovators suggest an open source data solution. Unusual, phony numbers will reveal themselves with mass data input across multiple facilities. The article goes on to mention Oklahoma as an example of one of the strictest lab regulation states. The state subjects weed labs to regular proficiency tests and requires them to collect two samples, one to test and one to reserve if they need to investigate any concerns. The second is also used for random testing.

It’s also crucial for buyers to look for a certificate of analysis. These documents are associated with batch numbers located on specific products. It serves as a way to show consumers what is in their product and that it’s free from residual solvents and heavy metals. 

Consumer education could also change the tide. Ironically, extra strength THC isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. New cannabis research revealed terpenes have more say in the effects and quality of a strain. But that hasn’t stopped people from THC shopping.  If buyers realized that high THC does not equate to better, market demand would shift. 

While these solutions offer a way to address corruption, the issue remains at large. State lawmakers have gained a considerable amount of money from marijuana tax, and labs are the bottleneck to the market. Until cannabis becomes federally legal, these concerns will remain or even get worse. Until then, the responsibility falls on the consumer to educate themselves.

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