Unknown Unknowns: Why Cannabis Needs Standardized Lab Testing Now
From fentanyl-laced weed to pesticide-polluted flower, the importance of accuracy in lab test results cannot be overstated.
As weed laws shift and legal cannabis grows more accessible across the U.S., the inclusion of lab test results on product labeling (indicating potency, cannabinoid content, and any presence of residual contaminants) has become commonplace. But if weed is to ever become a widely accepted wellness product––or better yet, receive federal rescheduling––the practice should be mandatory.
According to a University of Southern California study published last year in the Journal of Toxicological Studies, USC researchers examined 57 cannabis concentrate samples and found more than 80 percent of the samples to contain residual pesticides and solvents. That's a problem. IMO, if you’re buying weed from a licensed retailer, any such business pushing product that hasn’t been tested should be fined or face harsh penalties.
"The lack of quality standards from state to state is equally appalling,” says Cathie Bennett Warner, public relations director of cannabis testing firm Steep Hills Labs. “No state has gotten it completely right yet.”
Indeed, just this week in Ohio (which is one of the states with the highest frequency of deaths from opioid overdoses), Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco told reporters they're now finding the synthetic opioid fentanyl in weed.
For context, fentanyl and carfentanil are the synthetic drugs currently driving the nation’s opioid epidemic. They're 50-100 times stronger than heroin and otherwise used as tranquilizers for large mammals, such as elephants. Hamilton County alone has seen 297 deaths from suspected opioid overdoses involving the drugs so far this year.
Image via Steep Hill
“We have seen fentanyl mixed with cocaine, we have also seen fentanyl mixed with marijuana,” Sammarco said at a joint press conference with state Sen. Rob Portman.
Fentanyl-laced weed seems a bit farfetched and perhaps not even possible.
"Documenting the pipe chemistry of fentanyl in leaf material would be a research paper," a consultant that works with the Drug Enforcement Administration to test synthetic opioids told VICE. "And I don't think it's been done yet."
However, until the state figures out the framework for its medical marijuana program, if you’re buying weed, you’re more than likely buying it from a drug dealer. And while the synthetic opioid is absolutely being cut into a large portion of the state’s heroin supply, it almost seems counterintuitive to mix with cannabis. And despite the low probability of the practice going down, any possibility of marijuana being cut with fentanyl, or anything else for that matter, only strengthens the case for legalizing and regulating weed with mandatory product testing being included in said regulations.
"If a product is considered to be more potent; has a higher THC concentration, then retailers can charge more for the sold-as 'premium high.'”
Still, even though a significant portion of weed-legal states require all cannabis products to be tested and labeled accordingly before reaching consumers, the accuracy of these labels can vary based on the ethics of business owners.
In 2015, for The Denver Post, former Cannabist editor-in-chief Ricardo Baca produced an investigative report on the accuracy of labeling in regard to different edibles available in the Colorado market. According to the Post, one edible product “was found to be nearly 30 percent lower in potency than advertised. Another was nearly 20 percent lower.”
Image via Get Budding
Basically, if a product is more potent; has a higher THC concentration, then retailers can charge more for the sold as 'premium high.'” And lab test results can be tailored to meet regulations, or at the request of cannabis brands who, after all, are customers themselves, of any independent testing facilities.
“Many of the labs will sometimes say they can get better results,” Dylan Hirsch, executive vice president of Diagnostic Lab Corporation in New Jersey, said to Forbes. “It can be so subjective for results on THC.”
"Competition is stiff, but that should not lead businesses to engage in shady practices, and slang poser-ass pot, at the expense of progress. "
A Leafly investigation into the accuracy of results coming from Peak Analytics, Washington’s largest cannabis testing facility, stemmed from a complaint issued by the state. Washington officials accused the lab of “reporting artificially high THC levels—and rejecting an abnormally low proportion of cannabis samples for microbial contamination,” in its results, which seems to corroborate a larger problem.
Dishonest labs and unethical businesses slanging fraudulently labeled products spells bad news bears for everyone. And the practice has adverse results at virtually every level of the weed world. Consumer trust is lost. Regulations will only become more strict, should they continue. And it truly hinders the modern marijuana movement. Sure, competition is stiff, but that should not lead businesses to engage in shady practices, and slang poser-ass pot, at the expense of progress.