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Lab-Shopping & Inflated THC: Is Your Product What You Think?

Lab-shopping means we don't know what's in products
Written by Sarah Friedman

Lab-shopping is out of control in the cannabis industry; and the result is a lot of mislabeled products.

Cannabis testing facilities have proposed many issues since industries started; and its questionable how useful they are. A current and growing issue to plague the industry is that producers are lab-shopping between these facilities, to find the ones that give the results they want. What does this mean for you as the buyer?

Third party testing facilities

When it comes to weed markets, there are two circumstances when testing facilities are used, and the rules for the two are different; in fact, one doesn’t have rules at all. This is because the difference is in whether the products come from a legal market or black market. For example, when dealing with a delta-8 product, lab results come from a different testing facility then a weed product from a regulated company.

That’s because delta-8 products aren’t generally regulated by state, although there are some exceptions. If a state regulates them, then this no longer applies. For the majority that do not, or which outwardly illegalized cannabinoid products; then any testing done, isn’t mandated. If a company isn’t mandated to do testing, it means its doing it for your benefit; or rather, your perceived benefit. And it’s not going to use a regulated lab, because its not a regulated company. This often results in the use of bogus third-party testing facilities.

However, that’s the unregulated market. The regulated market has specifications on these matters; laws that companies must follow in order to remain compliant. These companies aren’t telling you they tested the products to make you happy, they’re doing it because they can’t legally sell their products, if they do not. As such, testing facilities in the legal market are also regulated.

Specifics of product labeling
Specifics of product labeling

If you’re thinking that only unregulated markets have issues with third-party testing though, you’re very much mistaken. Not only are plenty of labs happy to flub results for the benefit of a company; but companies are now shopping around for labs, in order to find ones that are willing to give inflated THC results to make the products seem stronger, and therefore, better. Higher THC does not relate to quality, of course; but for many people it’s the thing they’re looking at when buying a product, and these companies know that.

Recent warning for companies

The level of THC in a product has nothing to do with the quality of the product. It doesn’t mean there won’t be heavy metals or pesticides, or that it’s a desired strain, or that the other components like terpenes and flavonoids, will be at the right levels. All it means is that the product has a high level of THC; and for many people, this is the main issue when shopping for weed products.

In a recent MJBizDaily article, this issue was expanded on. In fact, in California, its such a problem that regulators already sent out warnings to labs licensed in the state, to report only accurate results; or face some kind of repercussions, like license retraction. MJBizdaily apparently was able to get a copy of the letter sent to labs on September 14th, by the state’s Department of Cannabis Control’s Lab Division. The letter stipulates that new random onsite testing will soon occur, for products already tested; as a means to ensure the correct results were reported.

As per the letter, “Inaccurately reporting results and falsification of data will result in action against your license, up to and including revocation.” It continued that “It may also lead to recall and/or embargo of the cannabis or cannabis products.” It stipulated that if Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) results don’t match standard lab results, that this could result in a need to relabel products. This possibility could be costly for companies; but at least doesn’t mean license revocation.

According to DCC Director Nicole Elliott in an email to MJBizdaily, “Randomly testing off-the-shelf products will continue to provide consumers with the confidence that the cannabis products they purchase have been tested and those test results are accurate.”

What does lab-shopping mean?

The cannabis world is a highly competitive place, and this means that companies are constantly fighting to be at the top of it. Since its known that many buyers are mainly looking for high THC levels, companies work to accommodate that desire, by offering high-THC products. Even when this means saying the products are higher in THC than they actually are.

Lab shopping implies finding a lab to give desired results
Lab shopping implies finding a lab to give desired results

Companies have been reported to go ‘lab-shopping’ in order to find labs willing to bend rules, and say that the tested material is higher in THC than it actually is. Often a company will send its product to multiple labs, and take the results of the company that offers the highest THC, or most favorable results; whatever that means to them. Companies often then end up partnering with the labs that give the results they like the best.

The idea that this exists at all, is indicative of an industry in which regulators really aren’t able to regulate. Especially as reports go back to 2019, when Leafly covered the story in the first place. At that time, it was reported that an audit in Oregon found 43% of companies were using at least three labs; an indication in and of itself, of lab-shopping.

In an MJBizDaily article from last year, industry officials said that growers and manufacturers are likely to keep up this behavior of shopping around for labs to give inflated THC amounts, in the absence of state-run labs to oversee private operations. As of right now, its not standard for states to operate labs for verification. California’s attempt to fight this is evidenced by the DCC letters, and the plan to retest material onsite to see if results match. However the question looms of how far-reaching this can go. In reality, the DCC is still limited in that it can’t test everything that comes through.

The MJBizDaily article quoted Jill Ellsworth, the CEO of Willow Industries out of Denver, Colorado on the topic. She stated, “On the lab side, inflated potency results that are not accurate are happening everywhere.” She continued that it would be a great idea if states actually audited third-party, private labs; which is what California is essentially attempting to do now. Except California is doing onsite testing, its not setting up its own state-run lab.

Ellsworth thinks consumer safety should outweigh the desire for companies to provide high-THC products; especially in light of the issues related to the introduction of high THC products, and the resulting issues of THC overdoses. In this sense, the issue of higher-THC products in general, is – at least partly – the fault of legal producers; who are all competing to sell the highest THC products.

What doesn’t come up in the articles I’ve read on this topic, is the idea of why the labs do this. Sure, it could be a measure of their own competition between each other, just to get regular business. But often when an illegal deed like this is done, it’s done for payment. The logic answer here is that not only are companies lab-shopping to find a lab that will accommodate their desires for reporting inflated THC levels, but they’re likely paying in some way to get the job done.

Lab results indicate the percentage of THC in a product
Lab results indicate the percentage of THC in a product

Is there a way to end lab-shopping?

We’re now left with a legal industry, which is just as confounding in terms of the illicit industry, about what exactly is in a product. And this despite the fact we’re supposed to have product transparency in the legal market. For as ‘clean’ as it’s advertised to be, in comparison to the super ‘dirty’ black market; the amount of issues coming out indicates this is not true at all. In fact, not only are there issues with things like heavy metals, and pesticides; but the reality is, we can’t trust any lab results we do get.

There are a couple hard realities concerning improvement with lab-shopping. The first is that the general public doesn’t know. No matter how many educational programs, or signs, or warnings are out there; its unlikely that the population at large will truly understand the issue. Which means they’re not going to put effort into picking through products to find the one with more honest lab results.

Secondly, it was the desires of the population at large that drove these actions in the first place. Maybe its not all about THC, but lets be honest, weed has gotten more intense; and a lot of people like that. As long as there is a desire for the products (and there is, or this wouldn’t happen); companies will do what they have to, to provide what people want to buy.

Beyond all this, the ability to police it all, isn’t possible. The legal industry can only attempt to regulate the legal industry; and a huge percentage operates as a black market, which cannot be tamed by regulatory laws. Considering no legal market has gotten this under control yet; its unlikely there’s a real workable answer. Plus, watching all governments’ complete inability to control the cannabinoid and vape markets; indicates its rather powerless at controlling this industry in general.

Conclusion

Lab-shopping is certainly not ideal, but it seems to be prevalent throughout the weed industry. Perhaps the only way it will stop, is when people decide they don’t want those products anymore.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.