Independent Lab Group Calls for Cannabis Testing Reforms in California
On New Year’s Day 2018, California brought in what was then the strictest suite of cannabis testing regulations in the United States at the time. Before this, testing had been a voluntary effort. But from then on, cannabis testing for a whole host of contaminants and impurities would become a mandatory part of operating within the state’s cannabis space.
The subsequent phases of this new testing program brought about substantial positive progress for consumer safety in the Californian cannabis market. But according to a recent letter authored by the American Council of Independent Laboratories, there is still a long way to go.
Why is reform needed?
The American Council of Independent Laboratories is a federally recognized trade association representing independent, commercial scientific and testing laboratories. In their letter, addressed to the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), representatives from the ACIL say that they are concerned about certain trends they have noticed within the Californian cannabis testing market.
According to the ACIL letter, the climate of the Californian cannabis testing space appears to be trending away from a focus on strict quality and safety, and towards a culture of receiving favorable testing results (such as higher potency values and no contaminants found) and lower prices.
“ACIL knows what will happen if this trend continues and companies are permitted to shop for the results they want, because it has already happened in the more mature markets of Nevada, Washington, and Oregon – laboratories that operate honestly suffer, and the integrity of the cannabis industry as a whole is questioned,” the letter reads.
This culture shift presents a double-pronged risk. Testing methods that inflate potency values are grossly misleading, and anything that incentivizes this “lab shopping” will almost inherently compromise consumer safety.
“[We are] seeing an increasing amount of flower labeled at 40 percent-plus THC,” Antonio Frazier, president of CannaSafe, tells Analytical Cannabis. “The craft style of California cannabis has certainly shifted and created more strains that are 30 percent-plus, but it has become exaggerated and misleading to consumers who are now chasing ‘higher potency.’”
Frazier is an executive committee board member of the ACIL’s Cannabis Working Group and is one of two ACIL co-signatories to the new letter.
“Lab shopping creates the race to the bottom with safety. As the letter points out, cannabis states that have been regulated longer have already experienced this. There is no need for the world’s largest cannabis market to make these same mistakes.”
Five recommendations from the ACIL
To nip this culture shift in the bud, the ACIL letter includes five recommendations that it would like to see all laboratories adopt – three geared towards improving the quality and accuracy of testing and two aimed at creating better consistency across the state’s labs.
Create action limits for Category 1 pesticides
The first recommendation is that an action limit of 0.1 microgram per gram (μg/g) be set for all Category 1 pesticides. Currently, laboratories define their own limit of detection (LOD) and any result above that LOD is considered a failure.
“This puts a large burden on producers and sometimes encourages them to choose a lab with higher LODs to ensure their products pass,” says Frazier.
“The good thing is that no one has an LOD higher than the [0.1 μg/g] recommendation, so now products are safe. But labs gain business for not having sensitive instruments. Consumers should want their labs to be able to see everyone but only regulate what’s unsafe.”
Establish guidance for sampling and homogenization
Field sampling and sample homogenization are known to be two of the largest sources of error in quantitative analysis, and yet there is no guidance on this matter in the BCC regulations. The ACIL recommends that guidance for these actions be established for each matrix type concerned (for example, cannabis flower should be milled to a set particle size during homogenization).
Formalize a proficiency testing program
To address issues withing their state testing system, Oregon established an approved proficiency testing (PT) provider, which gives samples to all licensed laboratories in the state. The PT provider then examines and compares all of the returned findings and can identify any outliers for further action. A similar system could be beneficial in California, the ACIL says.
Define validation requirements in regulations
The ACIL acknowledges that the current BCC regulations on cannabis testing do contain good requirements for validation and data packages, though the terms used in these passages – accuracy, precision, robust, etc. – are not very well defined. More specific guidance on validation requirements with thoroughly explained terms could be even more helpful for Californian labs.
Finally, the ACIL recommends that the BCC only accept compliance results from ISO 17025 accredited labs, and that additional cannabis-specific accreditation programs such as CanNaLAP or PFC also be considered. Initially, ISO accreditation was not made mandatory by the BCC as there was not enough testing capacity at accredited laboratories, the ACIL explains in the letter. Making ISO accreditation mandatory alongside the introduction of mandatory testing would have caused a severe bottleneck for the industry. But now, allowing the operation of unaccredited laboratories puts accredited ones at a competitive disadvantage while also increasing the variability of reported results.
The future for Californian cannabis testing
These recommendations are all actions that the ACIL believes can be taken and implemented in the coming months.
“I believe all of these can be addressed during the agency consolidation this year,” says Frazier. “We know that the BCC is aware of some of these items and has plans to address them. They have done a good job of providing facts sheets and FAQ updates for some of the other unclear items.”
The ACIL has also offered to assist in fielding questions, supporting requests, and providing data to the BCC that might help in bringing in these recommendations.
“We really want to be a voice for safety and educate the entire market on cannabis science,” explains Frazier. “It needs to be done in phases, but we want to prepare the market for how this will look once federally regulated.”
“It’s much harder to change practices once established. The industry still desperately needs tax relief, but these recommendations are more focused on transparent and consistent testing throughout California.”