Jim MacRae, PhD, founder and owner of Straight Line Analytics, a cannabis industry consulting and advisory firm in Seattle, doesn’t like to use the words “bad,” or “fraudulent” when describing a cannabis testing laboratory. Instead, he calls testing labs that deliberately inflate cannabis products to give producers whatever results they hope to get “friendly.”
This “friendliness” is a big problem in the cannabis sector. As more and more traditional food production companies consider chasing the hefty profits associated with adding cannabinoids to their products, they must also be concerned with avoiding testing labs that report falsely sunny results or risking legal and insurance misery.
Since 2016, Dr. MacRae and his company have published reports about cannabis testing in his home state of Washington and in other states where cannabis is legal. From the beginning, he identified what he calls “potency inflation.” In the earliest years of legal cannabis use in the U.S., consumers tended to buy products with the largest amount of intoxicating cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), or, in some cases, the non-intoxicating cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD). Although these labs are best known for inflating the content of major cannabinoids like THC and CBD, as legalization speeds cannabis research and development and other emerging cannabinoids such as cannabinol (CBN) and cannabigerol (CBG) become desirable, Dr. MacRae expects to see some labs goose those numbers too.
In a series of studies performed since 2016, Dr. MacRae revealed some prominent Washington state labs that appeared willing to “fail virtually nothing,” he says. Some cannabis producers used the practice of “lab shopping,” in which they delivered samples from the same product batch to multiple labs, to choose the lab whose results would be most desirable to themselves and/or consumers.
For example, in one study, Dr. MacRae examined certain labs testing cannabis flower, which can contain no more than 15% moisture according to state regulations. “There were a couple of poll humps in the data distribution,” he tells Food Quality & Safety. “One of them was around … 11%, which is … an appropriately cured moisture level in the flower.” But, as products approached the brink of the failing 15% mark, result numbers began to stack up suspiciously.
“I did a chart at a resolution of a tenth of a percent,” he says, “and you could see a spike [of results] at 14.9%. Then I did one where it was a hundredth of a percent, and you could see a spike at 14.95% and 14.99%. And then I did one with a thousandth of a percent, and the spike was always just below where you’d fail.” These results can downplay readings on allowable limits such as moisture, pesticides, molds, and other pathogens.
Shift toward Terpenes
As American legal markets have become more mature and sophisticated, consumers no longer just want high-cannabinoid cannabis. Many buyers are also looking for cannabis featuring particular terpenes, the aromatic oils that give cannabis its distinct odors and flavors, such as skunk, diesel, citrus, pine, lavender, and spice. Terpenes are believed to contribute to both the psychoactive and therapeutic effects of cannabis, and many consumers like to buy with a particular terpene in mind, such as pine-scented pinene, believed to have anti-inflammatory qualities. As such factors become more desirable, Dr. MacRae expects to see the rise of friendly labs inflating terpene figures to give producers the results they want.
For Morgan Fox, director of media relations for the Washington, D.C.-based National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), this consumer shift away from high THC toward a consumer preference in flavors and odors offers an advantage: Consumers can smell and taste quality themselves, rather than rely on a lab result to determine how strong to expect a product to be. “Consumers are really looking for the qualitative experience,” Fox says. “Does it taste good? Does it smell good? The emphasis on having the strongest THC is really starting to diminish, particularly when people have time to get used to the wide variety of different products that are available now.”
Where Edibles Come In
For companies that produce cannabis-infused foods and beverages, the challenges are similar, but with their own slant. To start with, cannabinoids in ingestibles are measured as doses in milligrams, rather than percentages of product weight. Infused food and drinks are mostly not made by cannabis producers or by extractors themselves; instead, ingestibles producers are very unlikely to work with whole cannabis flower; rather, they use its industrial by-products. And, while terpenes are a popular factor in choosing cannabis flower to smoke or vaporize, their powerful odors and flavors make them a challenge for industrial food producers to slip into popular infused-food formats such as gummies, baked goods, and chocolates.