28 August 2022 |

The shadiness of cannabis testing labs

By Kaitlin Domangue

Honestly, y’all – the longer I work in cannabis, the more nervous I feel about my licensed cannabis purchases. 

Was there mold in this batch and it’s been covered up? How clean are the facilities growing this flower? Have they failed for pathogens or other contaminants? How strict are the operators on hygiene? 

I truly cannot think about it too long or I start to feel sick to my stomach 🥲😩

But – I have to talk about it a little bit today because lab shopping & altering cannabis test results are huge problems that need to be addressed. 

I remember when I first learned about labs altering results. 

It was in March 2020 – literally THE DAY before the U.S. shutdown because of COVID-19 and I thought it would really just be two weeks of my life on hold & altered…

Anyways 🙂 

I was visiting a licensed hemp producer client of mine in another state who told me about lab shopping and altering results. 

He told me that a lot of hemp-derived CBD products (at least in his network) are passed & enter the market at 1% THC, even though the federal limit is 0.3%. 

He also told me that if brands don’t like their test results – they just go somewhere else. They’re lab shopping. Picking and choosing the results they like best. 

I remember being so shocked by that, but oh how I’ve learned since then: dishonesty can be rampant in cannabis. This industry attracts people who just want money. 

Sure, there are discrepancies from lab to lab. Different equipment and processes means the same product might have different test results at two labs. 

But there have been far too many labs who are caught intentionally altering test results and inflating or deflating numbers, in a way common lab discrepancies can’t explain. 

Inflating THC percentages is, of course, one of the most common ways to alter lab test results, and the opposite problem is seen in hemp producers to meet the legal limit. 

According to BDSA, 46% of Arizona consumers place high-THC as their top decision maker – more than any other choice. In other words: they look at THC content before most other factors, like the brand, the dispensary it’s at, or flavor. 

So brands wanthigh-THC test results, of course. 

According to Josh Wuzer, the President and Co-Founder of SC Labs, flower and concentrates are the main product categories for inflating potency results. There’s not much demand for altering percentages of infused products. 

Inflating or deflating potency isn’t the only tactic, though. Some labs turn a blind eye to contaminants like mold, yeast, and aspergillus – posing a massive risk to the consumer’s health. 

“We’ve seen it with micro[-biological] testing for different pathogens, where we’ll … ding someone for having aspergillus in their facility and it shows up in all of their products. And we’re like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to address this mold situation. It’s not going to go away.’ And then they say, ‘Well, I’m going to go over to this other lab. They don’t see it when they test it.’ So that certainly is an issue.’”, said Wurzer of SC Labs. 

An Arizona lab was fined almost $500,000 in February for intentionally-inaccurate results. The violations go all the way back to September 2020. The lab in question, OnPoint, was found to have improperly calibrated machines to accurately detect pesticide and herbicide, solvent, and heavy metal levels.

It’s almost overwhelming to try and explain just how common stories like this are. Just this year, an Oklahoma testing lab’s license was suspended for passing samples with yeast and mold, manipulated testing data, and more operational errors. Here’s another story about inflating THC – resulting in a $70,000 fine for the Nevada operator. 

And this is just what I was able to quickly find on Google’s first page – there are several more instances, even from this year alone. 

There are several ways cannabis labs are altering test results. Like the case in Arizona, the equipment wasn’t properly calibrated to accurately read levels. This is a common technique for dishonest labs. 

Labs might also add kief back to the flower and justify it because “kief falls off during the grinding process.” In Oregon, regulators are particularly concerned about labs adding ingredients after testing and not re-testing, especially where flavoring vapes is concerned. 

The solution? 

Dishonest testing labs are one of the reasons I believe in limited licenses. 

Not a license cap, but limiting the number of licenses issued each year – especially in the early phases of a state coming online. 

And that number of annual licenses might not be pre-set. Regulators should be able to determine their capacity and adjust as the program rolls out so all facilities have adequate oversight. Oklahoma just issued a two-year pause on licenses. 

With that being said, this is a problem in all states, not just markets with looser regulations. You can find fudged lab results everywhere, in both medical and recreational markets. 

Beyond regulators holding these labs accountable (fines & suspensions), operators need to carefully vet the labs they partner with. For new states, you can’t always depend on past test results and cannabis testimonials. You have to vet the person and see if they move honestly. 

And remember, they’ll often show their best side because they want your business – so stay on your toes. 

Oftentimes, operators are looking for a trustworthy lab and accidentally end up choosing the wrong place.

When products are recalled, businesses can be severely impacted – whether they knew about the botched results or not. Last year, a Michigan recall impacted all products tested by the lab Viridis over a several month period. 

“Some dispensaries, it’s wiped out 50% of their inventory, which is a huge problem, and it also might create some fear in the consumer just not knowing if this is going to show up with a bad test result after we’ve already smoked it all or ate it all,” said Megan Smith, employee of an affected Michigan dispensary. 

Some operators think altering test results is the easy way to more sales, but cannabis is a long game. As much as consumers care about high-THC, believe me: they care about clean test results more. 

If you had to choose between two flower brands and one had a label that said “lower THC, but tested for pesticides! All clean” and the other said “higher THC, but not tested at all for pesticides.” which one are you picking? 

Here are some recent stats about how consumers view cannabis product safety & quality: 

  • 83% of consumers support requiring cannabis retailers to validate the safety and potency of their products through verified certificates 
  • 80% of consumers say it’s important for them to be able to verify the safety of cannabis before using it
  • 78% of consumers want to know if the cannabis product has ever been recalled before making a purchase

Ultimately, the solution is a perfect blend of regulatory oversight and honesty from operators and labs. We need both parties to hold each other accountable and call out bad behavior.