A lack of cannabis lab testing regulations has led to a dangerous trend called “lab shopping” – and it’s one of the worst, little-known secrets in cannabis

The US cannabis industry is in a catch-22. The lack of federal legalization leads to some major issues in regulation, which puts individual states, and the country at large, on an uneven playing field when it comes to comparing the U.S. cannabis market to the rest of the world or even the U.S. market on a state-by-state basis. We need to discuss and address the problems within our industry so that we can be better prepared to handle a federally legal market when it happens.

One issue is the lack of consistency within cannabis testing and product regulation. One of the dirtiest secrets in legal cannabis is the “lab shopping” trend where retailers pick and choose cannabis testing labs that match their desired (or required) stats, regardless of accuracy. For non-THC products, like CBD, Delta-8, and hemp, the reality is even worse as few states even require product safety testing. 

 THC & Testing: The Root of Cannabis Lab Shopping

This cherry-picking of lab results usually boils down to THC percentage with retailers seeking to either over-inflate or under-represent THC potency test results to either stay under the legal limit (for things like CBD products) or secure products with extremely high THC levels (usually over 20%) to keep up with customer demand. The demand for high-percentage THC products has become so extreme that in some states, products containing under 20% THC are virtually unsellable – further enticing retailers to lab shop to get the desired percentage.

But, the root of the problem goes deeper than just retail – in even worse news, growers and retailers alike are also guilty of lab shopping to cover up pesticide use and the presence of metals and other contaminants in cannabis products. Naturally, this poses a dilemma for stakeholders at every level of the industry pipeline. Cannabis testing labs face pressure from retailers to alter results or risk losing business to less-ethically-minded labs, while retailers feel the pressure to patronize less-than-ethical labs to meet demand by seeking products with high THC readings at a time when over a third of retailers aren’t profitable.  

The end result is a no-win situation where cannabis consumers are the biggest losers, forced to accept one of three realities: either accepting that the products are likely misrepresented, trying to discern what retailers are partnered with reliable labs, or opting to head back to the traditional, street market. In any event, our industry backtracks. 

Beyond just the ethical concerns that come along with presenting potentially contaminated and inaccurately tested products to consumers, the consequences of compromising on best practices as an industry will continue to follow us even as legalization efforts move to fruition. We have to come together as an industry to solve these problems now so that our industry can be sustainable in the long run.

How to Select a Reputable Cannabis Testing Laboratory

So, whether you’re a retailer or consumer, how can you ensure you’re promoting or purchasing products vetted through an ethical lab source? 

For Retailers: 

As a retailer, it’s only natural to want to stay competitive by carrying the products consumers love – but lab shopping isn’t a long-term solution. States, like California, have already begun establishing federally regulated testing programs for cannabis to combat lab shopping.

Choose only to work with manufacturers and brands that test products through verified labs, and request to see a Certificate of Analysis (CoA) whenever possible that indicate 3rd party approved labs and products. Whenever possible, test products in-house as a best practice to assure the best product quality possible for consumers. Spot-check products from new suppliers that you haven’t worked with before or get a secondary confirmation from a lab before you purchase inventory. In the case of someone doctoring results CoAs, you can check with the issuing lab to confirm that the results are the same in their records as it is on the CoA you’re given for additional accuracy assurance. 

For Cultivators and Manufacturers:

Cultivators and manufacturers represent the first and second steps in the cannabis life cycle, and those steps determine the final product that hits the sales floor.

Use batch methods to ensure precision and uniform THC percentage among crops – care and consistency is key. Keep quality in mind as you select vendors to work with. For manufacturers, this means working with trusted and experienced growers – and seeking a second opinion from outside labs when warranted.

For growers, this means staying up to date on best grow practices and taking care to train grow employees thoroughly and establishing SOPs that ensure best practices are met consistently. Remember to consider the long game: work towards GMP or ISO:9001 Standards. This will help you ensure batch-to-batch consistency as well as begin to prepare your business for when federal legalization does occur, as these will most likely be the standards that the USDA/FDA will require for businesses.

For Labs:

Cannabis labs have a huge role to play when it comes to the ethics of testing cannabis. Quality control should be at the center of your daily operations, ensuring work is double-checked and carefully monitored for accuracy. Verify your testing operation’s validity with Certificate of Analysis (CoA) verification and make employee education and training a priority. 

While some labs may fear losing customers to labs that are willing to partake in lab shopping practices, the long-term consequences of unethical testing are much more severe – especially as regulations evolve. If you see or hear of bad actors in the lab testing industry, many states offer anonymous tip lines to report misconduct – which states are starting to take much more seriously. 

For Consumers: 

If you’re a cannabis consumer, you have a right to purchase products that are safe and correctly tested. Trusted brands often include a QR code to view laboratory information, be sure to look for the Certificate of Analysis (CoA) for the product that confirms it was safety tested by an ISO 17025 accredited laboratory. Be aware and pay particular attention to the reporting date of any CoA you are provided. Some disreputable businesses will re-use old CoAs from the previous year’s harvests.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions when at the dispensary and do your own research of the brands before stepping in a retail location – many dispensaries now offer online menus for convenience. 

As legalization efforts continue to spread and federal legalization approaches, labs participating in unethical testing processes will continue to be exposed. While federal oversight and regulation may be the only long-term fix to cannabis lab shopping and testing inaccuracy, only time will tell what lasting effects lab shopping leaves on the cannabis industry. 

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