A few weeks ago I was waiting in the lounge of a cannabis dispensary and overheard a rather heated discussion about cannabis lab testing. One customer swore that it was a scam, and that dispensaries only advertised lab results as a marketing gimmick to legitimize outrageous prices. The other customer swore, “I’m not smoking no poison, I’d never buy weed that hasn’t been lab tested first.” While neither of the gentlemen were particularly well-informed about the subject, both arguments did have some merit, as well as some serious flaws.
The past decade has been a gold rush for the medical cannabis industry. Thousands have seen the opportunity to make a quick dollar and have jumped into an industry they hardly understand. Many would-be growers have no prior horticultural experience, and are ignorant of the risks associated with improperly grown cannabis. Others have no qualms about using dangerous chemicals and taking unethical shortcuts to produce their products. To make matters worse, many dispensary owners don’t understand the industry any better.
The market is flooded with cannabis that may appear to be high quality but in fact is coated in poisonous pesticides, fungicides, and plant growth regulator–or thriving with colonies of dangerous microbes–or both. While many cannabis users may not notice any ill effect in the short term, some medical cannabis users are seriously ill and highly susceptible to poisons, irritants, and microbes. These are the same patients who are not in a position to grow their own medicine and rely on dispensaries.
Every medicinal, pharmaceutical, food or drink producer is required to provide third-party testing to verify product safety. Unfortunately, there is no basic level of safety or quality required for medical cannabis or the medicinal products made from cannabis. While a few municipalities require dispensaries to have their products lab-tested, this is far from the norm.
As the industry has matured, many growers and dispensaries have begun to lab test their cannabis products for the safety of their patients, and/or to give them a competitive edge. As the demand has grown for these services, labs specializing in cannabis testing have sprung up like little ganja plants, to meet the needs of the market. Most medical marijuana states now have at least one laboratory that can perform basic tests. This has empowered dispensaries to test their products for both safety and and potency, which better enables patients to choose cannabis best suited for their symptoms.
Cannabis Testing Is A Good Thing, Right?
What’s with that scary word “scam” in the title? Back to my story of the two gentlemen arguing in the dispensary. As I listened to them argue I looked around and read the big sign above the counter that stated “All medicine has been lab tested.” What did that mean exactly? All of the samples behind the counter and on the menu had the THC levels advertised, so I had a pretty good idea they were at least doing basic potency testing.
I asked the three clerks behind the counter what other testing was performed. As expected, I got three completely different answers. One said that they tested for everything, the other said they tested for mold and THC. The last told me they didn’t test for mold anymore because it was too expensive and they only bought from reliable growers anyway. He also mentioned that it was all organic so we didn’t need to worry about pesticides. This was pretty much the response I expected. It’s not uncommon for people who work in an industry to know very little about it. It’s just a job, right?
The Low Cost of Testing Cannabis
What’s sad here is not how little they knew, but that for this particular dispensary, potency was a higher priority than safety. Lets look at the math and see how much money they saved by not testing for the safety of their product. For this example I am going to use retail customer prices available from our friends at SC labs. Potency testing runs $80 while testing for potency combined with pesticides, plant growth regulators, fungicides and microbes costs about $168. Most labs require only a one gram sample for testing and most dispensaries will only test one sample from any given batch of cannabis. This means if a dispensary buys one pound from a grower or vendor and sells it in ⅛ ounce (3.5 gram) increments for about $50 each, the dispensary would spend only 68 cents per sale for a complete test.
If this pisses you off, just wait. Dispensaries often buy more than one pound of the same cannabis at a time, sometimes 10 pounds or more. If the dispensary only payed to have one sample tested the cost per ⅛ ounce could be divided by 10, now costing the dispensary only about 7 cents per sale. On top of this, SC labs as well other labs, offer significantly reduced prices for accounts that do a high volume of business with the lab. You and I might not qualify for these savings, but dispensaries will. In many cases this could nearly cut the cost of testing in half again. Don’t ever let a dispensary tell you they can’t afford to do full lab testing on their medicine. It costs about the same to test the cannabis as the packaging your medicine came in.
Price List of SC Labs Testing Services
Potency – $80 (Cannabinoids)
Microbial – $50 (Mold, Mildew, E Coli etc)
Pesticides, Plant Growth Regulators, and Fungicides- $50
All 3 of the above tests $180
Residual Solvents $100 (for extracts like BHO or Wax)
The Accuracy of Cannabis Potency Testing
Lets move on to potency testing, since that seems to be where most dispensaries are putting their money. How important is it to know the exact THC content of the cannabis you’re smoking? Some would argue it’s pretty darn important. Hey, you’re spending your hard earned money. You want to know you’re getting high quality medicine, right? Why would you buy an ⅛ that tests at 18% THC, when for the same price you could buy an ⅛ that looks and smells just as good and test at 20% THC?
I’m not going to tell you that cannabis potency testing is worthless but I will suggest it may not be as important or as accurate as you think. While the accuracy of test itself is probably spot on, no two buds off of the same plant are going to test exactly alike. I haven’t done an experiment myself, but based on a conversation with Ian at SC Labs, there is often as much as a 10% variation in the THC levels of multiple buds from the same plant. This means that even though the sample tested came back at 20%, the ⅛ you purchased could really be at 18% or it could be at 22% THC.
To complicated matters a bit more, the pound of buds that the sample came from probably contains buds from multiple plants. Hopefully they are from the same strain but that’s not guaranteed either. Harvest can be a busy and often confusing time. Growers rarely grow only one kind of plant. Mistakes happen. Expect a pound will have buds from multiple plants and possibly different phenotypes as well. Here is another monkey wrench to scramble your brain, the lab results can be skewed simply by how dry the bud is. Yes, I said it, the water content of the cannabis sample that is tested will affect the level of cannabinoids in the lab results.
Not All Lab Testing Is Equal
There are two primary methods for testing the cannabinoid potency of a cannabis sample. The first is Gas Chromotography which requires that the cannabinoids be vaporized so the gasses released can be analyzed. The downside of this method is that it does not differentiate between THCA and THC or any of the other cannabinoids in acid forms. This may not be important for some patients but makes it impossible to test for decarboxylation levels which are important for lab testing edibles.
The most accurate method for testing cannabis potency is with High Performance Liquid Chromatography. This method allows the testing facility to accurately read the levels of both THCA and THC as well as other cannabinoids in both of their forms. Considering the reasonable price of this equipment, any reputable facility testing cannabis potency should be using High Performance Liquid Chromatography.
Microbiological Contamination Testing
Unfortunately fungus and bacteria thrive in the same environments as cannabis. Anyone with much experience growing cannabis can tell you how common mold and mildew problems can be. Real-Time Polymerase Chain-Reaction (PCR) technology allows cannabis testing facilities to quickly and accurately determine the levels of potentially dangerous fungal contaminant such as Scopulariopsis, Rhizopus along with the more easily seen Botrytis and Powdery Mildew. Most cannabis growers and users wouldn’t guess that bacteria such as Listeria, E Coli are commonly discovered in the cannabis that dispensaries send for lab testing. Luckily these can all be detected through PCR testing. Pathogens like these may cause symptoms like food poisoning in healthy individuals but can be deadly for patients with compromised immune systems.
Pesticides, PGR’s and Fungicides
Most cannabis growers have very little experience with traditional horticulture and are usually ignorant of the proper and safe use of pesticides and fungicides. All too often poisons meant only for ornamental crops are used on cannabis. To make matters worse, dangerous and often banned substances like plant growth regulators are marketed directly to unknowing cannabis cultivators. Even pesticides and fungicides labeled as safe for food crops are meant to be applied to fruit and vegetables that can be washed before consumption. Cannabis is rarely washed before it is smoked.
We should also consider the potential chemical changes that might occur in a pesticide or fungicide when it is smoked and inhaled with the cannabis. I would wager that the majority of safety testing for pesticides is for crops that will be eaten and not smoked. Liquid Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry testing can detect dozens of these commonly used pesticide even when present in trace amounts.
Less Common But Equally Important
Residual Solvents – Cannabis Concentrates
The popularity of smoking or vaporizing hash oil, wax, budder, shatter and other forms of chemically concentrated cannabis is rapidly increasing. With this rise in popularity, amateurs are beginning to make their own extracts and develop new cheap methods for performing the extractions. All of the methods require a solvent. Some state of the art systems use high pressure CO2 but most use potentially dangerous substances like butane, ethanol, propane and a number of other petroleum or alcohol based solvents. Residual Solvent testing allows dispensaries to guarantee that their cannabis concentrates are free of chemical solvents or impurities and safe for their patients.
Terpenes are organic compounds in the plant that create the odors that make each bud unique. Not only do they contribute to the enjoyment of smoking, but they have an impact on the medicinal and physiological effect. While still a relatively new service, some cannabis testing labs are beginning to test for terpene levels. As we begin to learn about the synergistic effect of terpenes and cannabinoids, pointless questions like “is it Indica or Sativa?” could soon be a thing of the past. This is a potential game changer for medicinal patients who struggle to find strains that work for their symptoms.
Very rarely do I see lab testing done on edibles. While popular brands like Cheeba Chews test their own products and advertise potency on the label, many dispensaries make their own products and don’t really know the exact potency of their edibles. There is a little math required to convert the lab results on edibles to something intelligible to consumers, but it can and should be done. If for no other reason than patients need to know the potency of the edible they are consuming.
So, Is Cannabis Lab Testing A Scam?
If the only test a dispensary has done is the cannabinoid profiles, then yes, I would argue it is more of a marketing ploy than anything else. Cannabinoid ratios on their own, probably won’t help a customer make an educated guess as to what will work for them and it certainly won’t keep them safe from contaminated medicine.
I might be beating a dead horse, but I sincerely believe it is the responsibility of every dispensary to guarantee all the medicine they provide is safe for their patients. There are no established standards for the cannabis industry. This is the wild west. Cannabis dispensaries, growers, and cannabis testing facilities need to work together. Not only will patient benefit from reliable access to safe medicine, but the medicinal cannabis movement as a whole, might actually earn some of the legitimacy it has been struggling for.
Is Cannabis Lab Testing A Scam,