Cannabis Testing Labs in Alaska and Nevada are Under Scrutiny
In late January, Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s Environmental Health Laboratory initiated audits into two cannabis testing facilities. The labs, Canntest and Steep Hill Alaska, presented significantly different results of the same product’s potency. The audits are expected to be completed in the next few weeks.
Alaska isn’t the first state to see troubling discrepancies in its lab testing results.
In April 2017, complaints about Washington state’s leading cannabis laboratory’s results led to the revelation that the results were being doctored to make their clients’ products seem more potent.
Nevada’s Tax Department has suspended four out of the nine lab testing licenses it rewarded since the launch of the state’s very new recreational cannabis industry, 3 of those suspensions taking place in December 2017. The primary reason for these suspensions is that the offending labs were not following state-mandated procedures.
The reports of these cannabis testing failures and discrepancies have two immediate consequences. Initially, they hurt the trust the market has in the lab results meant to protect them. That publicized mistrust puts the testing sector on notice because legal cannabis consumers are not high school kids looking for a way to rebel—they’re adults who are serious about the things they put in and on their bodies.
Why Reliable Testing is Essential to Cannabis Regulation
One of the most powerful incentives behind cannabis legalization is that a regulated industry is much easier to inspect than an unregulated one. Consumers of legal cannabis eat it, drink it, smoke it, and apply it to their skin. Consumers of black market cannabis do the same thing except without knowing if the product they are using is contaminated by dangerous levels of pesticides, mold, or other microbial life.
Cannabis testing involves the scientific analysis of a sample of a cannabis product. Results should detect the cannabinoid and terpene levels, residual solvents, pesticides, and microbial contamination. Testing empowers cannabis businesses and their customers with information they can use to improve their choices, be it using a safer method of pest control or purchasing a strain more suitable for their medical conditions.
Despite the hype, there is a significant portion of the cannabis market that isn’t interested in getting high. These consumers include medical patients and those who are more interested in the wellness-side of cannabis culture than recreation. For these consumers, knowing cannabinoid levels is extremely important. Products with high THC levels are going to result in an intense psychoactive experience since that particular cannabinoid is responsible for the high the plant produces. On the other hand, strains with high CBD and low THC, or at least a 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD, will produce a much milder high while exposing the consumer to the powerfully therapeutic qualities of CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid. Without proper testing, consumers are making their cannabis purchases devoid of the slightest idea if the products they’ve spent good money on are going to mitigate or exacerbate their symptoms.
Concentrates, a category of cannabis products showing a market trend of consistent growth, are processed by extracting the most potent chemical compounds housed within the cannabis plant from excess plant matter. This process is completed through the use of a solvent like butane, CO2, or propane. Once the initial extraction phase is complete, the remaining cannabis derivative usually contains a residual solvent that can compromise the quality and safety of the product. Professional processors know how to remove this residual solvent, but lab testing is a way to confirm that those purging methods are working.
The question of pesticide use is a charged one, even outside of the cannabis industry. Health-conscious consumers are increasingly moving toward produce that has been cultivated organically, or without the use of chemical pesticides. While some of this move is a result of a successful marketing campaign by the organic industry, it’s also because research has shown that pesticides are dangerous for the environment and for consumers. However, pesticides are convenient, and convenience translates to saved time. Large swaths of the black market are notorious for using dangerous amounts and types of pesticides on their grows to save time and money. Lab testing forces cultivators to take the safe route rather than the easy one.
The inhalation of mold can cause consumers with healthy immune systems to experience flu-like symptoms like respiratory problems and vomiting and diarrhea. However, the majority of cannabis consumers in the legal market are medical patients. While not every patient has the same condition, many of these patients are living with illnesses that compromise their immune systems. In these cases, mold inhalation can have devastating ramifications. Lab testing detects the presence of microbial life including mold, aerobic bacteria, yeast, E. Coli, and Salmonella.
Is All Cannabis Testing Equally Effective?
Unfortunately, the disjointed nature of a state-led legalization movement in a nation subject to federal cannabis prohibition means that there are no universal testing guidelines for the legal industry. Additionally, lab testing is a recent phenomenon, and while that sector of the cannabis industry is growing, it is still young. So the short answer to the question is, no, not all testing is equally effective or reliable.
Different labs use different testing protocols, but there is a paucity of lab tests specifically designed to test cannabis. Here’s one way that this can be problematic: a lab may test a batch of cannabis for pesticides using a testing protocol routinely used on corn, but that protocol is not prepared to identify the one pesticide that is most commonly used on cannabis. The test will come out clean, but the cannabis will be saturated in chemicals.
The problems within the cannabis lab testing sector might seem overwhelming or like a reason to panic. But the cannabis industry is young, and these are the kinds of growing pains to be expected in a market with such explosive potential. The reports about Nevada and Alaska’s investigations into their cannabis labs are a cause for celebration. They mean that the standard has been raised, and the legitimacy of the cannabis industry is now worthy of protection more than a question.