The Top 10 Cannabis Stories of 2022
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Analytical Cannabis rounds up the year’s top cannabis stories, with a particular focus on research and testing.
10. Delta-8 THC persists
There were many stories to celebrate and discuss within the cannabis industry this year. But once again, among the tales of newly legalized states and riveting marijuana research, there was one issue on everyone’s lips: delta-8 THC.
For the unversed, delta-8 THC is an isomer of its more famous relative, delta-9 THC (commonly known as THC). This slight difference in its molecular structure has helped delta-8 evade some of the restrictions that govern the sale of THC in the US. Yet the compound can still induce highs comparable to its more prohibited cousin. Naturally, then, the US has seen a delta-8 boom in the past few years.
The situation may sound innocuous to some THC advocates – the more, the merrier, right? – but many delta-8 THC products are manufactured from federally legal hemp in a clandestine, unregulated way. Some cannabis chemists and industry regulators are thus concerned that the products could pose a health risk to consumers, especially minors.
“State and federal regulators should prioritize new hemp policies that ensure prohibition of sale to minors; set requirements for testing, packaging, and labeling; and place limits on potency and concentration of psychotropic products,” wrote a group of researchers in a viewpoint letter published in JAMA Network this year.
And they’re not the only ones concerned about the lax rules governing delta-8. At the start of this year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued warning letters to five companies for selling delta-8 THC products. According to the administration, the products were illegally marketed as unapproved treatments for various medical conditions.
Despite this outcry, consumers still flocked to buy more delta-8 this year. Indeed, for many, the cannabinoid seems to be their preferred variety of cannabis product. One consumer study published this year found that most buyers believe delta-8 products provide all the benefits of delta-9 THC but with fewer adverse effects.
So, the future of delta-8 looks more uncertain than ever. But if it mirrors the journey taken by more standard cannabis products, the delta-8 sector could eventually be on its way to more regulations…
9. More testing standards
Speaking of testing standards, the North American cannabis industry got a smattering of them this year.
Cannabis labs in Washington and Rhode Island had to start testing for pesticides. Labs in Connecticut were given a new yeast and mold limit (100,000 colony-forming units per gram) to work with. And in Colorado, efforts finally began to develop and certify the first heavy metals vapor tests for cannabis vape products.
And things haven’t been any less eventful within the testing accreditation bodies.
In October, ASTM International approved four new testing standards for cannabis samples. These validated methods – to test for cannabinoids, pesticides, heavy metals, and terpenes – may now become effective standards for cannabis labs across the country.
Not to be left out, in the same month the AOAC Research Institute granted its first-ever “Reviewed and Recognized” certificate for the cannabinoid analysis in flower method using an ultra-high pressure liquid chromatography coupled with a diode array detector. The certificate was awarded on October 20 to Viridis Laboratories, a cannabis lab in Michigan.
And yet, despite these advances, most industry insiders would tell you that there’s a long way to go. In July, a viewpoint paper published by research scientists and public health experts in California warned that current cannabis regulations are not doing enough to protect public health. And in September, another group of researchers – including Analytical Cannabis’ Scientific Advisory Board member Ini Afia – said that national-level guidelines for pesticide testing should be strongly considered.
We’ll have to see whether 2023 can deliver such change.
8. More recalls
Product recalls are nothing new and should be expected from time to time in the cannabis industry. But this year, the recalls just seemed to keep coming.
Back in January, a batch of dried cannabis flower was recalled by California’s cannabis regulatorafter it was found to be contaminated with Aspergillus niger. In February, regulators in Pennsylvania recalled hundreds of vape products because they contained ingredients“not approved for inhalation” by the FDA. In March, regulators in Colorado issued a health and safety notice after “potentially unsafe levels” of lead were found in a batch of pre-roll cannabis joints.
Most recently, on December 2, regulators in Oregon announced they were recalling thousands of THC vaping cartridges and extracts over concerns the products were contaminated with pesticides.
So far as we know, no consumer has been harmed by any of the affected products this year. But if standards don’t improve – testing standards, crucially – then it’s only a matter of time…
7. Cannabis prices, and sales, fall
Back in 2020, the cannabis industry experienced a boom in sales during the pandemic lockdowns. In the days before stay-at-home orders came into effect, consumers across North America lined up outside their local dispensaries, looking to stock up for the months ahead.
Two years later, it seems the pandemic windfall is at an end. States have seen their cannabis sales swing back to lower, almost pre-coronavirus levels. Oregon, for instance, experienced a 20% decline in monthly sales over the past year, according to the cannabis data company Headset.
Despite this sales squeeze, on the whole, consumer spending is still rising in several states. Looking at Oregon again, sales are actually up 25% from where they were three years ago (just before the pandemic began). So, although the recent economic dips are significant, say Headset, the positive growth in long-term trends is an indication of a market correction.
In other cannabis-financial news, the price of marijuana is also dipping. In Colorado, for instance, the average price of flower fell by 46% from July ’21 to ’22, from $1,316 per pound to $709 per pound. But while good for customers, this price plunge isn’t great news for cannabis businesses. Much of the lost value can be attributed to a bountiful harvest and a glut of crop. Faced with an abundance of cheap cannabis to offload, many farmers are reportedly considering scaling back their production next year.
Legal cannabis may be cheap, but it might not stay that way for long…
6. Psych it to me
Here at Analytical Cannabis – somewhat surprisingly – we don’t just focus on cannabis; we also take a keen interest in the growing research field of psychedelics and the legalization efforts surrounding the drugs. And 2022 was an eventful year for psycho-nauts.
In Colorado, during the US midterm elections, voters approved a ballot measure to decriminalize the personal possession of psilocybin and several other psychedelics. The policy also requires the state to regulate a therapeutic psychedelics program, which would license treatment centers and therapists.
Similar policies were enacted in San Francisco and Connecticut, while, in Utah, the governor signed a bill this year to create a task force to study the feasibility of psychedelic-assisted therapy and make recommendations on whether it should be permitted in the state. And north of the border, that exact kind of regulation was being prepared in Alberta, which will become the first province in Canada to regulate psychedelic-assisted therapy come January.
5. New legal states
Every year, a few new states, jurisdictions, and countries decide to go green and embrace legal cannabis. This year was no exception, but there were also a few places that declined the offer…
As part of the US midterm elections, Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota all had recreational cannabis proposals on their ballots. Voters in Maryland and Missouri said yes; voters in Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota said no. It was a bittersweet moment for cannabis advocates, who had to contend with the unwelcome ratio of two wins and three losses, but it was progress nonetheless.
Apropos of that headway, during the same elections, five Texan cities voted to decriminalize cannabis possession.
Back in the licensed world of marijuana, Rhode Island opened its legal recreational market just before the year came to a close, and Oklahomans were told they’ll have the chance to legalize recreational, adult-use cannabis on March 7 next year in their own referendum. Could 2023 see the 22nd US state go green?
4. Cannabis research rolls on
We kept a keen eye on the field of cannabis research this year, and there were some fascinating papers!
One study found that the cannabis compound CBN has the potential to treat age-related neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. Another found that frequent cannabis consumers are less likely to develop a form of liver cancer than their cannabis-sober counterparts. One quite bizarre paper found that a diet of THC-laced edibles can shrink the size of a monkey’s testicles!
Another particularly elucidating study uncovered elements of the cannabis leaf hitherto unknown.
“What was known before we started this project was that the non-photosynthetic plastids [plant “micro-organs”] were very unusually shaped, and were involved in making the precursors of cannabinoids, and that cannabinoids were eventually stored outside the cells in the mushroom shaped storage cavity at the top of the trichome,” Dr. Sam Livingston, a botanist at the University of British Columbia who led the research, told Analytical Cannabis at the time.
“What we didn’t know was where the final step of cannabinoid formation (THC, CBD etc.) happened, and how the precursors are able to get from where they are made to where they get converted into THC.”
And it wasn’t just academia that was getting all excited about marijuana science; this year, several US federal departments declared their interests. In a government letter published on July 27, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and six other national institutes wrote that they now aim “to promote mechanistic research of therapeutic benefits of minor cannabinoids and terpenes in the cannabis plant.”
Seems like cannabis research is finally going mainstream.
3. The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act
Indeed, cannabis research in the US is really about to take off, thanks to a history-making piece of cannabis legislation.
Throughout the year, the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act was inching toward success. In July, it passed in the US House of Representatives. In November, it passed through the Senate. Then, in December, President Biden became the first US president to approve a cannabis-specific piece of legislation by signing the act.
With the act in effect, the Drug Enforcement Administration is now required to help register practitioners to conduct cannabis research and register manufacturers to supply cannabis for the research. The administration is also compelled to regularly assess whether there is an adequate and uninterrupted supply of cannabis for research purposes.
And in the medical field, the act now allows physicians to discuss the potential harms and benefits of cannabis and its derivatives (including CBD) with patients.
From its promising impact on research and patient welfare, it’s arguable that the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act is the most monumental piece of US-wide cannabis legislation. For now at least…
2. Cannabis labs in the courts
Here at Analytical Cannabis, we keep a close eye on the cannabis industry’s testing sector. And this year there was a lot to see, and not all of it was good.
In particular, there were quite a few instances when cannabis labs were held to account.
In July, Colorado’s regulator temporarily prohibited RM3 Labs from carrying out most cannabis tests due to the lab’s “sifting” method.
“The [regulator] is now trying to standardize processes among different laboratories,” Ian Barringer, founder of RM3 Labs, told Analytical Cannabis at the time. “So they have asked us to eliminate the sifting step that we used.”
The RM3 situation seemed like a minor casualty of progress, but other violations weren’t so seemingly innocent.
In Arkansas, in July, three cannabis cultivation companies and one testing lab faced a class action lawsuit alleging that all four had conspired to defraud medical cannabis patients by inflating cannabis potency testing results. And the allegations of potency inflation kept coming.
In Florida, in August, the state regulator fined ACS Laboratory thousands of dollars for stating “false information” on its certificates of analysis (CoA) relating to the potency of certain flower products.
“The COA error was corrected immediately and for all other COAs for clients,” a representative from ACS told Analytical Cannabis in an email at the time. “At no time were any medical patients in danger. ACS has earned its gold standard industry recognition through its continued unwavering ethical standards and commitment to rectify any issues, including this recent occurrence. Any fraudulent intent is simply unsubstantiated.”
In Nevada, another lab was accused of inflating its THC potency results in September. And in California, several cannabis companies were hit with lawsuits towards the end of the year, each for allegedly inflating the THC content of their products via warped lab tests.
Indeed, as the year went on, it seemed like one nefarious habit of the testing sector was really getting out of hand: lab shopping.
1. The reckoning of lab shopping
If you’ve made it this far into the article, it’s likely you already know what lab shopping is and the threat it poses. But for those that need a reminder, the practice goes like this: wishing to cash in on the consumer demand for THC, a cannabis company can “shop” their products around different labs until it finds one that will provide high enough THC test results.
Over time, lab shopping can lead to a cannabis market saturated with fraudulent goods. Dispensary shelves can be stocked with vapes, edibles, and flower that aren’t nearly as potent as their labels claim.
This isn’t just bad for the consumer (who is duped into buying less potent products) but for the lab workers trying to keep the industry honest. Analytical Cannabis heard tale after tale this year of labs that fear closing, or have closed, because their clients are abandoning them for more unscrupulous labs that will deliver higher potency results.
“I’m in quite a difficult time, to be honest with you – whether it’s worth it to sustain this vision continually or not,” Dave Cho, founder of California’s Shasta Laboratory, told Analytical Cannabis earlier this year.
Other labs have already made up their minds and called it a day. CannaSafe, for instance, one of the most high-profile cannabis labs in California, closed its doors this year, partly due to the pressures of lab shopping.
“When people are able to test compliance samples at multiple labs and pick the most favorable result for sale, then it makes it very difficult for labs with integrity to get on the playing field,” CannaSafe’s chief science officer, Ini Afia, told Analytical Cannabis earlier this year.
Analysts like Afia and Cho have called upon regulators to do more to combat the scourge of lab shopping. And some action has been taken. Oregon’s regulator recently added a new rule that means state labs now face the possibility that their product samples may be sent to a second lab of the regulator’s choosing, so the product’s contents can be verified. And in California, the regulator is preparing to enact a mandated cannabinoid test that “will ensure consumers receive accurate and consistent information regarding the cannabinoid content of the cannabis and cannabis product they use or consume.”
But this one measure won’t be enough to end California’s lab shopping problem, according to some cannabis testers in the state.
Speaking to Analytical Cannabis in July, Jeff Wurzer, co-founder of SC Labs, remarked that the new rule is “bringing a whole host of problems.”
“It’s not ready for primetime; all the labs have sort of come out against it, and it doesn’t really stop the inflation problem.”
So what will work? Some testers have suggested that all cannabis testing data be openly shared, so the industry can better scrutinize itself. Others have even argued that potency testing – the main driver of the corruption – be outmoded. No potency testing, no inflated potencies.
Whatever the solution, it needs to be implemented fast, because the list of honest labs is dwindling every day, leaving cannabis testers out of a job and consumers with falsely advertised products in their hands.