At an industry-related event earlier this year, a friend and I struck up a casual conversation that changed my mind forever about the importance of cannabis testing. Our discussion went something like this:
Me: "What do they even test cannabis for, anyway? CBD versus THC?"
Well-Informed Friend: "They test for all sorts of stuff. Potency, mold, mites, pesticides, terpenes. There’s not much regulation in the industry, so, sometimes nasty things get onto the plant."
Me: "Nasty things? What does that mean?"
Well-Informed Friend: "Well, one time I went into someone’s grow and their dog had made a mess on the floor and no one cleaned it up. Good flower is sticky. Things that are around the shop or in the air just sticks to the flower."
Um… What? That’s really gross.
To give the unnamed grow house the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure that someone cleaned up the dog mess at some point, and I’m also sure that the mess in question didn’t magically jump up and coat every flower in the room. Yet, hearing stories like that are eye-opening examples of why there needs to be more testing and regulation in the cannabis industry.
All pharmaceutical and food products are required by federal law to follow the regulations designated by the Food and Drug Administration. Before any pill or new medical treatment is put out on the market, it has to go through a rigorous testing process to determine whether or not it’s fit for consumption.
When it comes to cannabis, standardized testing and regulation are really only in their infancy. To help us understand what testing is and why it’s important, we asked Alec Dixon of SC Labs, a Santa Cruz-based testing laboratory, to give us the low-down on what you should know about testing before you buy your bud.
Here’s what we learned:
When testing labs first began to pop up, many tested only for THC content and the presence of molds and mildews. Even today, many “testing labs” determine whether or not a flower sample passes or fails by putting a nug under a UV light and checking for mold.
True testing is much more complicated than that. “Because of a lack of federal oversight, there is a lot of fragmentation in both testing standards and policy from state to state, county to county,” said Alec. “This makes it very challenging to really put out products that are clean and safe by common standards.”
One way to determine whether or not a testing lab truly knows their stuff is to ask what pesticide residues they test for. Many labs use what’s called an Elisa test, a common and perfectly legitimate test that checks for traces of insecticides and fungicides. While the Elisa test has been an effective test in the agricultural world, it’s a bit limited when it comes to testing cannabis products.
“You may have a pesticide test that tests for over 200 different pesticides, but if you actually go down the list, there are only 10-12 different items that people in this industry actually use on their plants," explained Alec. "So, as a lab, you could be approving growers all day without actually testing for the chemicals they’re using, or doing anything to help them develop a better, healthier product.”
Like any other agricultural product, marijuana plants are sensitive when it comes to molds, pests, and plant-related diseases. In order to protect plants, many growers turn to pesticides, miticides, and other synthetic products.
When used correctly, pesticides can be fairly harmless. Yet unfortunately, lack of standardized testing means that many times pesticide residue can be found on flower that’s ready to go out to dispensaries for sale and consumption.
“Certain chemical pesticides can have extended residual effects that can be hazardous or toxic to the consumer,” said Alec. “When residue is present on plants, people may get headaches, or have strange respiratory issues and pass it off as this strain or that strain, or not recognize it as an issue with the way the cannabis was grown. Even worse, if someone with a compromised immune system mistakes something like this, they may experience effects that are a lot more detrimental.”
Alec explained that products like Avid, a common miticide, are neurotoxins that can cause harm if mishandled or if you are exposed to them in large amounts. Neurotoxins are compounds which target the nervous system and change the way that neurons signal to each other. Avid is currently not one of the miticides tested for in an Elisa test.
Up until very recently, cannabis testing has been almost entirely a consumer-driven market. As more people began demanding to see test results from their dispensaries, some states and counties finally began requiring that medical and recreational cannabis be tested.
Such a huge demand for cannabis testing is a good sign for the marijuana industry. But greater demand has also created a new problem: misrepresented results.
Alec gave us a hypothetical example: “Say a dispensary receives and posts test results for an OG Kush with 26% active cannabinoid. Based on the test results of that strain, that product flies off the shelf in two days. So, because of an inherent marketing opportunity, dispensaries exploit the 30-60 day expiration date for their test results. We’ve seen dispensaries label another strain 'OG Kush' and use their previous test results to get the new strain off the shelf.”
This type of misrepresentation is more common in states like California, where testing regulations are lacking and inconsistent. Other states, such as Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, have implemented stricter regulations, making it more difficult for poor quality or unsafe cannabis to reach the shelves at all. However, these problems can only fixed permanently with regulation that’s consistent nationwide.