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How California Lab Testing Could Change the Way We Talk About Cannabis

November 28, 2016
In this photo taken on Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, a lab technician prepares a sample of marijuana for testing at CannLabs in Denver. Tiny bits of marijuana are chopped even finer and put through chemical analysis in a tiny Denver laboratory that is on the leading edge of what could be a whole new endeavor for states that have legalized pot: marijuana product safety.(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
If you buy legal medical cannabis in Los Angeles today, you’re lucky to find a reliable THC reading for most products on the menu. You’re even less likely to see information about levels of cannabinoids such as CBD, CBG, or CBN. Nor would you see much about terpenes, despite their increasing importance to patients and connoisseurs alike.

Remember, we’re talking legal, medical cannabis—adult-use stores won’t be licensed until 2018. Yet what’s in the cannabis is still largely a mystery. When the only guidance is the sniff of a jar and the recommendation of a budtender, is it any surprise so many people still think all pot is created equal?

Get ready for that to change. Testing requirements under California’s newly passed Prop. 64 will, in theory, bring an unprecedented level of transparency.

With more questions come more answers, and with more answers comes a better understanding of the plant.

As the law is written, all legal cannabis products must be sampled by an independent laboratory and tested for cannabinoids THC, THCA, CBD, CBDA, CBG, CBN, as well as the “terpenes described in the most current version of the cannabis inflorescence monograph published by the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia.” Which is available here if you want to check. (Here’s a preview.)

To most Americans, all those cannabinoids are just a lot of letters. Terpenes are still exotic unpronounceables in most circles. That’s precisely the point. Testing for cannabinoid and terpene levels may spark greater consumer interest in those compounds. With more questions come more answers, and with more answers comes a better understanding of the plant.


Understanding Cannabis Testing: A Guide to Cannabinoids and Terpenes

Maybe you don’t care about exotic cannabinoids and terpenes. Maybe you just want to get high. That’s cool, but you still care at least a bit about pesticides, don’t you? What about solvents, chemicals, and microbiological impurities? What about some trimmer’s pubes?

Prop. 64 requires testing for all those things. Seriously. Check out Sec. 26101.

California’s new adult-use law, if as thorough in practice as it sounds on paper, will give consumers more information about their cannabis than any state law in the country. It could help restore California to the cutting edge of cannabis culture by inspiring new topics of conversation and innovation.

And because of California’s outsized influence on the cannabis community—nearly 1 in 8 Americans calls the state home—those effects are likely to spread. Before long, rather than hazily delineating between indicas and sativas, even East Coast consumers could be singing the praises of CBN and linalool and wondering why Massachusetts and Maine don’t adopt the same testing standards.


13 Things You Might Not Know About California’s Prop. 64

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Even in California, such a system is far from a done deal. The success of Prop. 64’s ambitious, exhaustive testing scheme depends entirely on what happens next.

State cannabis programs are only as good as their implementation. Prop. 64 talks a big game, but it’s up to the state Department of Public Health to back it up. The department is tasked with determining very important details, such as setting health and safety standards, determining what to do if a product’s test results fall outside those standards, and how often testing needs to happen.

Perhaps most important, it’s also the department’s duty to ensure that testing actually happens—and yields reliable results. Which, judging from regulators’ track records in other adult-use states, is easier said than done. In some cases, loopholes have allowed the use of pesticides that become hazardous when exposed to heat (not a good thing for a product many smoke or vaporize). In others, lax oversight of testing procedures has created opportunities for growers and processors to game the system.


California Just Legalized Cannabis! Now Comes the Hard Part

With Prop. 64’s passage, it’s now up to regulators and advocates to make sure the system functions properly. Having a consumer protection law on the books isn’t so reassuring when products on store shelves are found to contain dangerous pesticides, or when a $10 edible can still turn out to be a dud.

Prop. 64’s advocates spoke of their measure as the most sophisticated state cannabis law ever written. But the law’s just a blueprint. The construction is just getting started. Whether you’re a member of the industry or a concerned citizen, get involved! You can contact the Department of Public Health with questions or concerns about testing at or 916-558-1784.

If the new law enriches a select few but doesn’t improve the quality, safety, and transparency of California cannabis—all at a price that can compete with the state’s vast black market—it will be a failure. On the other hand, if it works, the new testing system will shape the nature of the largest cash crop the world’s eighth-largest economy. Those new testing rules—and the knowledge they impart to consumers—could change the cannabis landscape around the world.

Ben Adlin's Bio Image

Ben Adlin

Ben Adlin is a senior editor at Leafly who specializes in politics and the law. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin

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  • lovingc

    The length of the sample was enough to put me off. I am for more information but it has to be understandable and easy to use.

  • So, according to Table 6 on page 38, (page 9 of the PDF “sample”),
    cannabidiol, (CBD), and cannabichromene, (CBC), are
    “anandamide reuptake inhibitors”, but Δ⁹-Tetrahydrocannabinol, (Δ⁹-THC), isn’t.

    Very interesting…

  • aCountryVegan

    I recently saw a label from some cannabis a friend got while in Colorado and I was amazed at what these people allow to be used on their cannabis. The list of pesticides was longer than the other ingredients. More than enough reason for me to never consume that crap. I only hope when full legalization happens that we are all allowed to grow our own. There is no reason for 90% of what they use these plants if the environment is controllable such as a greenhouse or indoor grow and wth proper organic pest management techniques shouldn’t have to use it on outdoor crops.

    • “I only hope when full legalization happens that we are all allowed to grow our own.

      If home-grow isn’t allowed,
      (or has special dispensary-proximity and / or personal / household license requirements),
      then it’s NOT “full legalization”,
      (e.g, Nevada, Washington State, Ohio’s failed 2015 Issue 3 ballot measure).

      • Endrest

        LOL, there’s no such thing as ‘full-legalization’…

        Legalization just means the government controls taxation of said ‘legalized’ substance, like alcohol and tobacco. They control the licensing of businesses that will sell to the public. Just because you can’t grow marijuana in your home has nothing to do with legalization.

        What would be nice is decriminalization… personally, I don’t like my tax dollars being used on policy I don’t support.

        • Even though alcohol and tobacco are licensed, taxed, et al
          one is still free to home-grow their own Saccharomyces cerevisiae
          cultures, (brew beer, ferment wine), and Nicotiana species plants, (tobacco), if they wish to do so…, for personal consumption,
          without having to pay a license fee or register w/ the government.

          • Endrest

            True, but if you want to make it to sell to the public, you must jump through many hoops (mainly with the ATF) to be licensed to do so.

            You can grow your own tobacco too.. but I’m talking about many background checks and tons of fees and continual-observation by said agency… probably a couple agencies and departments I’m missing… because, y’know, this is the US gov… and why should they make anything easy for you….?

            I mean, just look at our tax code!

          • All of which, in their bureaucratic complexity,
            favor big biz over smaller ones…

          • Endrest

            Exactly…I think we’re actually on the same page.

            Legalese is the language that separates the haves and have-nots… The thing that does that is a general lack of education.

            Who you know is more important than what you know… now more than ever. Then again, there is Kickstarter, Indigogo, etc… I surmise that perspective is more important than the mass will ever understand.

  • Endrest

    What about solvents, chemicals, and microbiological impurities? What about some trimmer’s pubes?

    Solvents that haven’t been purged fully are a problem. Pesticides are, too… three dispensaries in Colorado were found to be using Eagle-20 (an ornamental-only fungicide) and are under a class-action lawsuit, currently. IIRC, ~14K plants were taken by the MED as evidence with ~ 12K of them belonging to LivWell.

    Pubes?? So we’re trimming naked, now?? LOL!

    • Scott Wood

      Endrest do you by chance know the name of the law firm that is handling the class action lawsuit. I am from Canada and we now have a similar situation here where a so called organic company selling medical marijuana to mostly Military Veterans was using eagle 20 or Myclobutanil. Many are reporting severe symptoms of Hydrogen Cyanide Poisoning. I would appreciate any info you may have on the issue in the States. Many thanks

  • Rocari Deejay

    do all cannabinoids (I believe 85) come in carboxylic acid form when raw? thanks

  • RBWorks

    My take is that all the CA testing is required to make it a Big Industry business, to hamper the small grower who would have very high expenses to test each batch. The prior CA law on medical marihuana had not such thing. Another trick added to the regs. What a shame.

  • RBWorks

    And the price of all that tested pot will be higher

  • Scott Wood

    Does anyone know the name of the U.S. law firm which I handling the class action law suit against Liv well in regards to the use of Myclobutanil on its plants? I am from Canada and we have an identical situation here where Organigram a company who claims to be 100% organic was caught using two banned pesticides Myclobutanil and Bifenazate on their medical marijuana. Many Military Veterans have been affected and are suffering from Hydrogen Cyanide poisoning after vaping or smoking the contaminated MJ which is emitted by the heating of the Myclobutanil. Any comments and info would be appreciated. Many thanks