What is Lab Shopping? And How Can The Cannabis Industry Tackle It?
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Lab shopping is the practice of offering (shopping) a cannabis product to different testing labs and then ultimately partnering with the lab that offers the most favorable test results.
Often, the “most favorable test results” are the ones with the higher THC potency numbers. If one lab says a cannabis pre-roll contains 32% THC and another lab says it contains 40% THC, well, many pre-roll manufacturers would be inclined to partner with the latter lab.
Why? Because there’s a ravenous consumer appetite out there for high-THC products; the higher the THC, the more a company can charge for its edible, flower, or concentrate.
If left unchecked and unpunished, lab shopping can spread throughout a legal cannabis market, leading to fraudulent products on the dispensary shelves and honest labs without any customers.
Several labs that recently shut their doors, including CannaSafe Labs, one of the most prominent cannabis testing labs in California, have explicitly blamed lab shopping for their company’s demise.
“The issue of lab shopping and ownership decision not to play in that arena ultimately led to the closure,” Ini Afia, former chief science officer at CannaSafe, told Analytical Cannabis in July 2022, shortly after the company announced its closure.
So, what can be done about lab shopping? What checks and rules are needed to guarantee consumers aren’t getting swindled?
Here at Analytical Cannabis, we’ve asked those questions to a host of experts over the past few years. Here are a few of their suggestions.
It may not be the most extreme or enforceable policy to combat lab shopping, but whenever we’ve asked lab experts in the cannabis industry for solutions to the problem, again and again, consumer education is mentioned.
The thinking goes: if consumer demand for THC is ultimately driving lab shopping, then consumers should be educated that there’s more to cannabis than just high THC levels.
“I think the long-term solution is to highlight some of these other compounds in cannabis,” Josh Wurzer, co-founder of SC Labs, told Analytical Cannabis last July. “And we’ve talked about this in the past, like, terpenes really are the quantitative quality indicators and really do demonstrate whether or not cannabis is going to taste tastes good.”
“But there’s no silver bullet; it’s a long slog. I think it starts with educating the consumer on some of this stuff, rather than passing a bunch of new regulations that require labs to test everything the same way.”
California’s cannabinoid test
Speaking of “new regulations that require labs to test everything the same way”, California’s cannabis regulator made one standardized cannabinoid test mandatory for all labs in the state, in an effort to quell its lab shopping crisis.
According to the state’s Department of Cannabis Control, this compulsory cannabinoid test “will ensure consumers receive accurate and consistent information regarding the cannabinoid content of the cannabis and cannabis product they use or consume.”
As you may have guessed, Wurzer isn’t confident the policy will work.
“You’ve got the state of California that has a standardized method that they’re releasing and are going to force the laboratories to use to try and rein in some of the THC inflation,” he told Analytical Cannabis last July.
“But that’s bringing a whole host of problems. It’s not ready for primetime; all the labs have come out against it, and it doesn’t really stop the inflation problem.”
Oregon’s "second lab" policy
California isn’t the only state with a policy purposefully made to combat lab shopping. Oregon’s cannabis regulator recently announced its “second lab” policy. Since the start of 2023, any cannabis company in the state has faced the possibility that its product samples may be sent to a second lab of the regulator’s choosing, so the product’s contents can be verified. This way, the state regulator will be able to see if there are any discrepancies in the cannabinoid content of products.
Commenting on the new rule back in November 2022, the then-commissioner of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission, Matt Maletis, explained that the second lab rule was very much envisioned to combat the state’s lab shopping/inflated THC problem.
“There’s a lot of voices that don’t want THC to be the sole factor and the skewed THC is something the consumer fixates on and it’s not fair,” he said.
Oregon’s approach to lab accountability may prove to be one of the more thorough in the US. But some argue that that kind of accountability doesn’t have to come from the state regulator; it can come from the labs themselves. If all the testing data were public and transparent, some industry insiders argue, there might be no need for a second lab, because all the labs could police each other.
One person who’s made such an argument is Liz Mason, the former director of operations at Aurum Labs, a Colorado cannabis testing facility that recently shut its doors, partly due to the pressures of lab shopping.
“Our solution to lab shopping is having all the labs have transparent data, meaning we pool our data and then we look at it statistically,” Mason recently told Analytical Cannabis.
“We all should have similar failure rates,” she added, “we should all have similar spans of THC that we’re reporting. We've always said the proof is in the data. And if you make people share and be transparent about their data, you'll be able to tell you'll see an outlier.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that person is guilty,” she said, “but it says, ‘Okay, that’s what we go investigate. Why are you an outlier?”
But pooling data isn’t Mason’s only proposal to rid the industry of lab shopping, she and her business partner Luke Mason also have a much more radical suggestion.
No more cannabinoid tests
That’s right, one possible response to the crisis of inflated THC levels is to just… not test for THC. If THC isn’t quantified in the first place, then there’s no way its presence can be overstated on product labels. That’s the thinking behind the proposal, anyway.
“Our solution to that would be that we stop testing flower potency,” Liz Mason told Analytical Cannabis. “I think it’s great that we do it for edibles, so that people know, ‘I’m taking a 10-milligram gummy,’ but for flower, we should just not have potency on there, and people just go and buy it based on look and smell and stop the potency completely.”
“It’s a completely meaningless number,” Luke Mason added.
How is THC potency – the most desired quality in cannabis – a “meaningless number” I hear you ask? Well, according to Mason (Luke, that is), the THC potency of a single cannabis crop can vary from bud to bud. Therefore, if one sample of a crop is tested and the results say it contains 20% THC, it’s hard to confidently say that every other bud taken from the crop and sold will also be 20% THC.
“I’ll tell you a story from way [back] in the beginning,” Mason said. “We partnered with a grow and we tagged all the buds on two plants of the same strain in the same rooms, all under the same conditions. So we ended up with eight to ten individual flower-potency tests per plant. And the range of the top [bud] was 30% [THC] and then the lowest potency, which probably wouldn't make it to trim, was 10%. So we had a plus or minus 10% [range] throughout the entire plant, and then from plant to plant saw the same variability.”
“So, yeah, potency testing for flower is totally irrelevant, at least the way we’re doing it right now.”
While ditching cannabinoid tests altogether is a compelling proposal, it’s one unlikely to be adopted by many states.
Instead, regulators may be more comfortable with financial penalties for cannabis companies and labs caught inflating THC numbers. That’s what Dave Cho, founder of Shasta Laboratory in California’s Bay Area, has advocated for.
“[The] only option is money related,” Cho recently told Analytical Cannabis.
“For example, high potency products, they have got to collect double or triple the tax. Otherwise, what is the interest to the cultivators and the extraction company? Because they will continue to shop around regardless; this is a free market.”
As an honest cannabis lab operator, Cho has watched his clients slowly leave him to more obliging competitors – even if those labs were only offering a smidge more THC on the products’ labels.
“We were only 3% lower than other labs, and the customer said, ‘No, I’d like to go with [the] other lab who gave who gave [the] higher number,’” Cho recounted. “For 3%? That’s not a big difference. But that is the current situation.”
To remedy the “current situation” Cho is adamant that offending labs and companies need to be charged more by the state.
“There’s no clear solution other than taxing or some other kind of money-related [proposal],” he said. “Otherwise, this is going to keep on going.”