Opinion: Cannabis Labs Need Staff With the Right Experience
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The cannabis industry is growing like a weed, pun intended! It is growing in the US and around the world and becoming a mainstream conversation topic, attracting startups, investors, businesses, and savvy entrepreneurs.
In 2022, Marijuana Business Daily estimated that the US cannabis industry would reach $33 billion by the end of 2022 and increase to $52 billion by 2026 in total combined medical and recreational cannabis sales. With this growth rate, the cannabis multi-billion market has sprouted into a “weed” rush and could reach a $100 billion market within 10-15 years.
Rapid growth also comes with inherent difficulties; the infrastructure to support the market is still being settled.
Testing laboratories and testing issues
Cannabis testing laboratories are an essential part of the infrastructure. While on the surface, they seem to be surefire winners. But serious issues are surfacing in this space, leading to bad headlines.
These include reports of problems with mismanaged labs and testing results – fabricated results that inflate THC or potency content, mislabeled products that lead to product recalls, and continued practice of lab shopping.
Lab shopping is the gaming of the system by sending the same samples to multiple labs from which sample submitters (cultivators, for instance) choose the best results for the highest THC content or the lowest contaminants in their crop. As increased THC content brings more dollars per ounce, the additional revenue offsets the cost of the multiple analyses.
Lab shopping has also expanded into an insidious practice where at least two entities (cultivators and labs) conspire to fabricate data to obtain the desired testing results and to produce more revenue for the cultivators. Struggling labs may entertain the practice by giving a higher THC content to cultivators in exchange for taking market share from competing labs, for example. Reports in several states have asserted this practice to be firmly embedded in the industry.
Anyone in the cannabis industry should be concerned when products are not what they are advertised to be. Under-reporting contaminants, over-reporting active ingredients, mislabeling products, or plainly providing inaccurate information harm consumers’ safety and trust, which should be paramount in the industry.
Chain of custody accountability
While it is easy to blame labs, one should dig deeper and think broader that the entire chain of custody may be at fault. Every touch point during the product journey bears responsibility for testing results problems.
When labs generate results, these results go through a chain of custody: cultivators, manufacturers, regulatory bodies, retailers, and other cannabis industry players. Thus, if problems happen and remain unreported, every entity within the chain of custody is accountable for facilitating testing results problems to infiltrate the industry.
Processes within the chain of custody are flawed and plagued with inherent problems that must be addressed for consumers’ sake. And there may exist definable root causes to these problems.
Problems with handling multiple industries into one platform
Although cannabis is not a new product, it is an interesting area of research because of the plant itself. Every part of the plant has a potential use. Cannabis claims and applications are also numerous, leading to cannabis and hemp being experimented with and used in many products designed for humans and pets, and included in materials such as textiles and paper.
Companies are then faced with widely different categories of cannabis products classified as botanicals, food and beverage, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Operating labs under these conditions is like bringing multiple industries into one platform. Under normal conditions, each discipline brings its own complexity that is different from one another.
Though the common feature with these product categories is the presence of cannabis, these disciplines would remain separate and have their own special analytical techniques. For example, conducting plant and beverage testing is handled differently, as each has its own challenges and requirements, which is why they are categorized and classified as such.
This can constitute why cannabis testing labs cannot handle multiple complex industries and why they are plagued with analytical issues.
Complexity of the cannabis products
The plants and derived products are equally as complex. Plants and ever-increasing formulas are found as flowers, buds, pre-rolls, concentrates, vapes, cartridges, tinctures, pills, gummies, and brownies; and testing methods must keep pace.
The analysis of the plant alone brings its own set of challenges. And whenever the actives, cannabinoids, and other components are formulated to make final products, the complexity of the analysis multiplies.
Nevertheless, labs must test. So, this complexity of sample composition and differing sample preparation techniques demands experienced lab leaders and scientists, whose experience should be commensurate to the level of complexity of the cannabis products as well as their various categories.
But sometimes the skill level of lab leaders and scientists do not match the demands of the position.
Laboratories are coping with inexperienced staff
Lab owners and executives are not always equipped with a scientific background behind the operation of their businesses. Many are not scientists and have entered the business to participate in the growth of the entire industry, and cannabis rapid growth may have enticed some owners and executives to take shortcuts to enter the market or stay in business.
When the reality of the equipment costs, the operating expenses, and the competition hits, many are forced to assess everything: how to keep labor costs and expenses down, how to increase testing volume, how to maximize profit.
In the lab market, volume contributes to success. Labs generally charge similar prices for testing. Up-charging for value-added services may not be possible as this is a simple fee-for-analysis business model; more volume equals better profit.
To keep the doors open, owners and executives may not see the issues in participating in unscrupulous behaviors to gain or retain market share through lab shopping, for example. Otherwise, with the state of competition, pricing will be a race to the bottom; and there are no winners in a price war.
Recruiters and hiring managers are struggling to find talent
Because the lab testing market is so competitive, prices are depressed. Professional recruiters and hiring managers have a daunting task, as this competition can also affect pay offerings. They must find a workforce, especially scientists and technicians, willing to take a cut in pay from other industries (pharmaceutical industry, chemical manufacturers). Lab leaders may also accept a lower pay offering.
As the profits are already reduced from the slim margins afforded in the space, attracting top-level talent is a clear obstacle to success, lending itself to the hiring of an inexperienced workforce from top to bottom to run a lab with unique complexity.
Recruiters and hiring managers also make practical mistakes, judging from their hiring practices that show that they are unaware of what it takes to run a typical testing lab, let alone a cannabis testing lab.
One example of a job posting describes that the experience needed for a lab director is similar to the expertise required for scientists or technicians. Scientists are even required to have more experience than lab directors. For example, in another post, a lab director is expected to have a Bachelors, Masters, or PhD degree with only one to three years of experience. In another post, an analytical chemist is required to have a BS degree with five years of experience.
Furthermore, a PhD does not qualify a person to manage a lab. Management skills are more critical, especially the management of scientists, researchers, or technicians. Lab directors do not need to have a PhD, a qualification that, really, only ensures that a person can perform detailed research on a specific topic and adequately defend their research findings. Such a person does not necessarily have managerial training, and managing a lab is about getting samples in and out efficiently while maintaining basic lab operations. Ordering supplies, documenting work, and keeping records are equally important as the science. None of this is taught in graduate school.
In addition, small cannabis testing labs can have trouble transitioning from mom-and-pop entrepreneurship-driven companies to process-driven companies, which are heavily bureaucratic, requiring management skills that a typical PhD owner may not have.
As such, there are really a range of scientific and non-scientific degrees that are “tolerable and acceptable” in cannabis testing labs.
Inexperienced scientists, inexperienced leaders in a new industry, what can possibly be wrong?
When inexperienced lab leaders and scientists operate a lab, it is guaranteed they will struggle with the depths of the minutiae of the methods, the instrumentation, and the sample preparations. Even experienced and traditional chemists have the same challenges and may have difficulties handling the wide variety of the product categories (botanicals, food and beverage, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals) and the products themselves (flowers, buds, pre-rolls, concentrates, vapes, cartridges, tinctures, pills, gummies, brownies).
Because of the complexity and knowledge of these different forms of products, a better-than-average expertise is a must. The job requires a depth of scientific knowledge to understand the nuances of analytical testing, the proper processes of method development and validations. The successful applicant must understand the molecular level of analytical methods, instrumentation, sample preparations, and materials’ physical properties.
All of this expertise requires serious chemistry education and experience that cannot be replaced with degrees other than chemistry or some basic and rudimentary cannabis certification.
And technical expertise has to do with the outcomes.
So, when inexperienced lab leaders and scientists are testing cannabis products, it is almost laughable to expect testing errors not to happen, because they may be incapable of understanding or interpreting wrong, good, accurate, inaccurate, and acceptable results.
All of these problems contribute to testing result problems and discrepancies within and between labs.
Third-party methods are well-intended, but do they help?
With few standardized guidelines across the industry, cannabis testing labs have the option of developing their in-house methods or relying on third-party methods from instrument vendors and official method-developing organizations.
The best and recommended methods are always the ones that are developed in-house if the labs have the expertise and time, which come with distinct advantages: better turnaround times and enhanced knowledge of the methods. However, it takes months to write a protocol, then develop and validate a method. Also, because of the shaky expertise of lab leaders and scientists and the need for more time to develop methods for the multiple forms of products, labs often rely on and employ readily available third-party methods.
Official method-developing organizations develop methods using equipment that may be slightly or wildly different from those of the labs; and labs must take these methods and adapt them to the conditions of their equipment (from the same or alternative equipment manufacturers).
These methods are designed and valid for only a few products, such as flowers, buds, concentrates, oils, and gummies. They are not necessarily suitable for the dozens of other cannabis products. Lab personnel must then adapt these methods to a plethora of products, deviating from the procedures, or they must create their in-house methods anyway.
So, what is the point of using third-party methods when labs need to drastically adjust the methods, which can lead to testing result problems?
Equipment vendors offer "turnkey" laboratories, but do they help?
Vendors are branding their equipment as cannabis testing-ready, although the same equipment can analyze other materials. The same vendors can sometimes advertise a push-button approach, giving the illusion that labs can quickly enter the market with little to no experience.
Once the equipment is installed and qualified by the vendor, labs are required to take full ownership of the equipment and methods, including calibrating instruments, testing products, troubleshooting the instruments and methods, and interpreting data. These methods and instruments may function as advertised until complex scientific problems occur. Inexperienced lab leaders and scientists are unlikely to solve these complex problems, lending themselves to more issues, including testing results problems.
The turnkey lab with standardized methods is a myth.
Who is reconciling the data?
When inexperienced lab leaders and scientists use poor lab techniques and insufficient methods, the consequences are manifested in abysmal results.
And when fraudulent activities– such as labeling samples with THC content beyond the plant’s biological limits – committed by nefarious cultivators and manufacturers are added to the already lousy lab results, the problems multiply.
Most, if not all, of these problems should be caught if proper processes, structure, and leadership are in place across multiple entities (cultivators, manufacturers, retailers).
For instance, when certificates of analyses are received, at least two persons within each entity should verify and approve them. Red flags should be raised and reported if results are suspicious, such as THC content beyond its natural limits.
But it is hard to imagine that no one across these entities can reconcile lab testing results. This lack of process is a lack of validation and, ultimately, a lack of leadership, something that devalues the entire industry’s credibility.
Everyone should be called into question, even the cannabis state regulators, who may not be capable of adequate oversight.
State regulators are not without blame
The state regulators are not without blame either; their reporting infrastructure should be capable of finding anomalies promptly. When results are entered into their systems, suspicious testing results should prompt red flags. So, while trying to get in front of the testing result issues, they have become part of the problem.
Regulators can also hide behind ISO accreditation, such as ISO17025, which is required for labs. For instance, ISO17025 only focuses on a fraction of the entire facility and labs; it does not inspect or monitor the lack of process or data integrity needed in the cannabis testing arena.
State regulators are even doing fewer audits than the ISO17025, which is just the repeatability of a few laboratory procedures. These audits are useful without a doubt but do not guarantee the accuracy of the results because of the wide variety of the product categories (botanicals, food and beverage, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals) and the products themselves (flowers, buds, pre-rolls, concentrates, vapes, cartridges, tinctures, pills, gummies, brownies). Their service is insufficient for what the cannabis testing labs need. When auditing, regulations should be based on thorough, highly sound technical opinions and experts.
The cannabis industry’s rapid growth has outpaced the state regulators’ ability to supervise. Underfunded, understaffed, and ineffective supervision of the industry does not do the sector any favors.
How to restore trust?
There is no single root cause for these testing issues – inflated THC content, mislabeled products, and lab shopping – there are many.
The cannabis industry is similar to a gold rush; many will try to discover gold, but most will not.
The winners are those who can maintain a good brand, gain trust, and ensure safety by doing things right, from the cultivators to the consumers. The rightful losers are those who deliberately scam the system at all levels.
The good news is that fraudulent activities are being caught.