Leafly Investigation: Is Washington’s Top Cannabis Lab Inflating THC Numbers?

Ian Eisenberg, owner of Seattle cannabis retailer Uncle Ike’s, said his buyers have no hard and fast minimum THC amount. “We buy it all,” Eisenberg says, “and we have everything from 10% to the high 20%’s.” He did acknowledge that THC potency remains the chief concern for many many customers who come through the doors, and that Uncle Ike’s wholesale buyers sometimes pass on strains they know will require a more complicated explanation to sell.

“The business answer is that customers buy pot based on THC,” he said. “And it is true that THC gets you high, but there is also the entourage effect and terpenes. But there’s no way to put a number on those.”

THC is still the most widely known molecule in cannabis, and it provides the most convenient available metric of the punch a product packs. Because consumers want more THC, higher THC numbers mean more sales for growers. And that means more clients for labs willing to inflate potency numbers.

While the market’s THC-obsessed feedback loop is a knot in itself, perhaps the most frustrating thing about Washington’s lab testing woes is that they’re not particularly new.

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In January 2016, the Seattle Times’ Bob Young rocked the industry with a story alleging that “some pot labs in state failed no pot at all.” The reporting was based on data first analyzed by MacRae. Though he deemed several labs to be overly friendly to their clients, one particular lab, called Testing Tech, stood out.

After MacRae’s initial analysis and the Seattle Times story, Testing Tech’s certification was revoked by WSLCB regulators. Surprisingly, it wasn’t revoked for the lab’s apparent bias and near-zero microbial fail rate. Instead, it was for a simple personnel problem: After a virulent workplace dispute, Testing Tech’s lab director quit, leaving the lab without one of the key staff members required for certification. Testing Tech lost its state certification by default.

The complaint suggests Peak Analytics was happy to pick up where Testing Tech left off.

While the lab’s suspicious results didn’t lead to direct regulatory enforcement, the snafu did catch the WSLCB’s attention. The agency responding by creating a body, the Lab Quality Assurance Commission, to help draft regulations meant to clean up the testing industry. Those rules amended sampling requirements, and added requirements for labs to complete regular so-called proficiency testing, a means of standardizing results. They also clarified the circumstances in which the WSLCB could suspend or revoke lab licenses, a situation that originally was never made clear.

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All told, the changes give the agency a pretty big stick to wield against any offending labs.

But in the absence of any clear use of that stick—and in the presence of significant market incentives to cheat—the complaint suggests Peak Analytics was happy to pick up where Testing Tech left off.

Results compiled by data scientist Jim MacRae of Straight Line Analytics show Peak's results (Lab 0015) have been significantly higher than its competitors' numbers. "Friendly" and "objective" labels refer to MacRae's past findings of discrepancies between labs. (Jim MacRae/Straight Line Analytics)Results compiled by data scientist Jim MacRae of Straight Line Analytics show Peak’s results (Lab 0015) have been significantly higher than its competitors’ numbers. “Friendly” and “objective” labels refer to MacRae’s past findings of discrepancies between labs. (Jim MacRae/Straight Line Analytics)

When his analysis went public in the Seattle Times report, MacRae initially observed a drop-off in outlandish, 30%-or-higher THC results. Fail rates that once seemed impossibly low began to climb. He continued to monitor the data. Peak Analytics opened in January 2016. MacRae soon began to notice that the lab’s results were trending higher than the rest of the labs. He watched the trend continue for several months.

MacRae's analysis also found that Peak Analytics (Lab 0015) has failed an unusually low proportion of samples tested for microbial contamination. (Jim MacRae/Straight Line Analytics)MacRae’s analysis also found that Peak Analytics (Lab 0015) has failed an unusually low proportion of samples tested for microbial contamination. (Jim MacRae/Straight Line Analytics)

MacRae claimed to have shared his results in August 2016 with the head of the WSLCB’s Marijuana Examiner Program, but he didn’t release his data to the public until recently. On March 29, MacRae published a blog post—the “citizen observation” cited in the complaint—out of frustration with what he saw as a lack of response from the WSLCB.

“Part of the disgust I feel now is that I see no evidence that the WSLCB has done anything to address this issue in the 7+ months since I brought it to their attention,” MacRae wrote in the post. “It seems apparent from the following graphs that the LCB had better things to do with their time over the past few months than to provide effective oversight of lab incompetence and/or misbehavior.”

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WSLCB spokesman Brian Smith told Leafly that he wasn’t aware of any official complaint MacRae had made, nor did he know of any direct contact between MacRae and the WSLCB

“Jim has come to our board meetings and talked. I’ve heard him say some things before,” Smith said. “He did something on a blog once that he shared with Bob Young at the Seattle Times.”

He added, “We don’t react to blogs.” Asked about MacRae’s contact with the Marijuana Examiner Program, Smith said the former lead examiner changed jobs a few months ago, and he was unsure if that person ever met with MacRae.

Smith said the WSLCB received the first official complaint about Peak Analytics on April 10. According to Smith, all official complaints are investigated by the board, and the complaint has already been passed to the WSLCB’s lab-auditing contractor, RJ Lee.

Lee will perform its own analysis of traceability data, Smith said, and provide the results to the WSLCB. If the investigation turns up violations of lab testing rules, Peak Analytics could face suspension or revocation of its license. Asked how long it might take to complete the investigation, Smith said only that “we can’t put a time limit on it.”

“How can you pass a proficiency test and yet be so far away from your peers?”

Nick Mosely, Confidence Analytics

Mosely, at Confidence Analytics, said he’s concerned an audit by RJ Lee might not be sufficient to catch determined cheaters.

“Unless RJ Lee is willing to go in there with weights and measures and really exhaustively touch the bench and the wet work, then it’s a paper audit,” he said. “If you’re an unscrupulous lab, and you know what good paperwork should look like, you can make good paperwork.”

In a January interview about the new testing rules, Smith said he was skeptical that anyone was cheating given the high risk of getting caught. “If people want to play games like that, they’re playing with their license,” he said.

Mosely and other industry members party to the complaint, however, are still fairly certain something’s rotten in Bellingham.

“That’s the one thing that points to nefarious activity, is that this lab has passed a proficiency test twice,” Mosely said. “Which does begin to beg the question of, ‘How can you pass a proficiency test and yet be so far away from your peers?’ Because a proficiency test is nothing more than comparing you to your peers.”

Given the apparent uncertainty of regulatory oversight, how can the concerned cannabis consumer get honest lab results? First and foremost, by educating themselves.

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Suppliers, at least in Washington, are required to provide retailers with their original lab testing certificates, and retailers are required to keep them on file. Not everyone does, Eisenberg said, joking that “from how the vendors bitch about selling to us, we’re the only store that actually requires it.”

If you’re not sure whether your local store has the certificates on hand, just ask. If they’re not available, and if you refuse to buy pot because there’s no way to know what lab tested it, you’ve given your retailer an incentive to keep certifications on file.

It also might be worth looking beyond THC.

As many as 84 cannabinoid compounds besides THC may be present in a given cannabis plant, the CFC position paper points out, in addition to all sorts of terpenes. “To place so much emphasis on THC alone ignores this reality,” the paper warns. It also incentivizes growers to provide customers with the highest THC numbers they can find, which in turn incentivizes the labs that measure THC to bump up those numbers, knowing that growers will flock to them.

However, the solution also doesn’t necessarily lie in sanctioning those labs that do succumb to temptation. A flash-in-the-pan outcry about a single lab won’t solve the problem, as illustrated by the case of Testing Tech. A shift in the way people buy cannabis, on the other hand? That just might.

Documents

Peak Analytics potency complaint by Ben Adlin on Scribd

Cannabis Alliance letter to members, notice of violation by Ben Adlin on Scribd

Cannabis Farmers Council position paper on potency testing and labeling by Ben Adlin on Scribd

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