Opinion: Lab Shopping is the Achille’s Heel of the US Cannabis Industry
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The legalization of cannabis in various US states has led to the rapid growth of the cannabis industry, which is projected to skyrocket to a whopping $82.3 billion by 2027. The increasing acceptance and legalization of cannabis for both medicinal and recreational use are the key drivers of the industry’s growth. As of April 3, 2023, 38 states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes while 21 states have enacted laws allowing its recreational use. This trend is expected to continue as more states recognize the potential benefits of legalizing cannabis, including increased tax revenue and job creation. The increasing demand for cannabis products such as edibles, oils, and tinctures is also fueling the growth of this industry.
The legalization of cannabis has spurred new research and development, resulting in exciting new products and innovations. This has created a multitude of new opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors alike. As a result, we’re seeing the emergence of numerous cannabis-related businesses, including those involved in the cultivation, processing, testing, and distribution of cannabis products, as well as those providing legal, financial, and consulting services.
Clearly, the industry has a lot going for it. However, despite the initial achievements, it has encountered some setbacks, one of which became prominent in 2022: the issue of THC inflation. This problem has resulted in widespread lab shopping as growers aim to obtain the highest THC levels in their products.
The common misconception
There is a common misconception among cannabis consumers that products with higher THC levels are always more potent and result in stronger effects. However, this is not necessarily true as THC levels alone do not determine the overall potency of a cannabis product.
The potency and effects of cannabis depend on a combination of factors, including the presence of other cannabinoids and terpenes, the consumption method, and an individual's tolerance and metabolism. For example, a strain with lower THC levels but high levels of other cannabinoids and terpenes may produce more potent effects than a strain with higher THC levels but lower levels of other compounds.
The misconception has contributed to an increase in demand for high-THC products. Customers are willing to pay higher prices for high-THC products, and thus, some producers incentivize labs that agree to report inflated THC numbers for their products.
What are THC Inflation and lab shopping?
THC inflation involves artificially increasing the reported THC levels of a sample to indicate a higher concentration of THC than is actually present. Strains with less than 10% THC are classified as low THC, while those with over 20% THC are considered high THC strains.
Lab shopping is a consequence of THC inflation, where unscrupulous producers seek out labs that artificially inflate THC levels. This practice has become so widespread that some labs openly promote their services based on the high THC numbers in the certificates of analysis (CoAs) they provide.
As high-THC products command a premium, corrupt labs are encouraged to inflate THC numbers. Unethical producers flock to such labs, while the labs that report true results lose out on business. The practice is undermining consumer confidence and the industry's integrity. If labs continue to allow the labeling of products with inaccurately high potency, consumers will lose trust in the regulated market. Illicit markets offer many alternatives to high-quality cannabis at competitive prices, and consumers may turn to these options instead.
How to arrest THC inflation in its tracks?
The rising concern of potency inflation is perpetuated by the lack of industry standards for testing. Labs use different processes and equipment, delivering different results. Dishonest labs take advantage of this and report inflated THC numbers. Furthermore, the scope for manual intervention allows corrupt labs to falsify results and hoodwink regulators. These gaps must be closed to arrest THC potency inflation. The industry needs a universal standard for testing. Additionally, the same samples should be tested in different labs, and outliers should be identified. States should then take swift action against labs that publish inflated numbers.
Improving transparency among labs and conducting frequent audits by state regulators to detect inaccuracies and discrepancies in data, as well as investing in hiring experienced data scientists by state agencies, can eliminate the incentives that drive potency inflation. This, in turn, will enhance consumer trust in the regulated market.
There’s also a need for dispelling the misplaced notion that higher THC alone is a true indicator of potency. Taking care of awareness and communication regarding this would address the issue of THC potency and, consequently, lab shopping.
Finally, labs must get accredited to ISO/IEC 17025 to demonstrate their competency to produce reliable results and restore customer trust in the regulated cannabis market.
Image 1: A schematic representation of various ways to curb THC inflation and lab shopping (Figure courtesy CloudLIMS).
Why laboratory information management system for cannabis testing?
A laboratory information management system (LIMS) can help cannabis labs meet the requirements of ISO 17025 with ease, instilling an added level of assurance and confidence in the accuracy of the lab's results.
The implementation of a LIMS allows for the automation of lab processes through the integration of analytical instruments and seamless adherence to quality standards. This eliminates the potential for manual manipulation of test results. Additionally, the system allows for the automatic generation of reports with a scannable QR code, which can be shared with customers in real-time. The QR code can be programmed to encode a link to the original CoA generated by the lab, enabling consumers to verify the composition reported on the product label with the actual test results on the CoA. This helps to enhance consumer confidence in the products they consume.
With a LIMS, it becomes impossible to manually manipulate laboratory data. This system meticulously tracks and records all laboratory activities, including staff login activities, changes to documents, sample records, and test results. Besides, maintaining high-quality standards is crucial for cannabis testing labs to establish the reliability, reproducibility, and defensibility of their results. Labs use various quality control (QC) samples, such as fortified blanks, spikes, and duplicates to ensure accurate results. A LIMS for cannabis effectively manages the QC sample results and identifies analytical errors by comparing the test results of QC samples with the test samples.
Image 2: A LIMS for cannabis testing labs to record all laboratory activities with a date and time stamp (Figure courtesy CloudLIMS).
As the cannabis industry continues to grow in the US, it’s important to address the challenges it faces. THC inflation and lab shopping are undermining consumer trust and the industry’s integrity. It is important for the industry to address these issues by implementing a universal standard for testing, improving transparency among labs, and investing in hiring experienced data scientists by state agencies. Additionally, there is a need to dispel the misconception among the public that higher THC levels alone indicate greater potency. Labs should get accredited to ISO/IEC 17025 to demonstrate their competency in producing reliable results. A LIMS helps automate lab processes and instill confidence in the accuracy of lab results. Addressing these issues will not only benefit consumers but also the industry as a whole, ensuring continued growth and success in the years to come.