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Lab Results: Our Love-Hate Relationship

May 25, 2018 @ 8:32AM

What makes recreational marijuana different than black market weed? Aside from the tax structure and all the other compliance stuff, black market cannabis may be identical to recreational herb save for one major difference: quality assurance in the form of laboratory testing. As with food safety regulations, lab testing weed is important to ensure that marijuana products are safe to ingest. Sure, you can buy cheap and untaxed weed from “the guy,” but how do you know that it isn’t contaminated with mold, heavy metals, or harmful pesticides? Smoking pot won't kill you, but contaminated cannabis just might.


Believe it or not, lab results on marijuana products aren’t there to reassure customers that they’re buying the “strongest,” the “dankest,” or even the most “fire” herb available, they merely exist to reaffirm that the product is genuine cannabis (as opposed to synthetic marijuana, which can cause bleeding or death) and that it's safe for human consumption.


That being said, the lab results displayed on cannabis packaging can be confusing and frustrating, if not flawed or misleading altogether.



Potency (THC & CBD)

As mentioned before, the “potency” percentages are there to serve as an assurance that you’re buying real, authentic, federally illegal marijuana. Aditionally, the potency results kind of serve as a jumping off point for what sort of effect you can expect from that product. No, THC percentages aren’t an indicator of how high you'll get, and they don’t have anything to do with indica and sativa classifications (which aren’t rooted in science anyway), but they’re useful if you’re specifically looking for something high in CBD, or something with a 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD.


Skip the next 3 paragraphs if you’ve heard me rant about this billions and billions of times before, but THC percentages are pretty counterproductive. It’s not at all uncommon for customers to shop based on the highest THC percentages, but this strategy is inherently flawed because a higher percentage of THC doesn’t mean the product will get you more high than something that tests lower.


"The THC percentage from the laboratory is not a good indicator of strength,” remarks Nick Mosley, co-founder and Chief Science Officer at Confidence Analytics. “Something that tests at 18% isn’t ‘more fire’ than something that tests at 16%. Both will get you high, and the type of high each one gives you depends on other ingredients besides THC.”


Now, if THC and CBD percentages are supposed to be indicative of the dry plant’s weight [after all moisture has been removed], then these results are saying that just the THC in the plant— not the fragile trichomes that house most of the cannabinoids and terpenes, but one specific chemical inside of those tiny little trichomes— accounts for 25-30% of the plant’s mass. I’m no chemist, but that seems hard to swallow… I’m personally skeptical of anything that claims to test higher than 20%, though Leafly research scientist Nick Jikomes is more permissive, saying, "upwards of 35% is suspect."


For additional context, let’s refer to a study by Mahmoud A. ElSohly, the scientist who has led the marijuana project at University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”) since 1980: the only place in the United States that’s legally permitted to grow and research marijuana under the supervision of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). If you can believe it, Ole Miss has been distributing huge tins full of joints to [the 4 remaining] federal medical marijuana patients under the Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program since the late 70’s, but we’ll save the details of this program for a future blog article.


Suffice to say, ElSohly is one of the most credible cannabis researchers in the country, and his findings were that "the potency of illicit cannabis plant material has consistently risen… from approximately 4% in 1995 to approximately 12% in 2014.” You’re probably thinking those numbers seem way too low, but bear in mind that this guy has been testing marijuana for the feds for almost 40 years— including pot that’s been seized from all over the country— and he doesn’t have any vested interest in inflating numbers for the sake of end consumers. No other lab can acquire a sample of pure THC from the government for calibration purposes, and considering Ole Miss would be the source, I’m inclined to believe that ElSohly's lab results are more accurate than most.


So why is there so much herb in Washington testing around 30%? To be frank, it’s because:

  • many growers seek out the labs that give them the highest numbers, because
  • different labs use different testing methodologies, and some labs intentionally inflate their numbers, because
  • dispensaries often pay growers more for higher testing products, and this is all because
  • consumers will often pay dispensaries more for higher testing weed.

Not to say inflated numbers are solely the customer’s fault, but our industry does tend to prey on this lack of consumer education to move cannabis faster, easier, and at a higher price point. Like it or not, we’ve created an ecosystem predicated on consumer ignorance. If every pot smoker in Washington did their homework and realized that THC percentages are essentially meaningless, it could cause a paradigm shift in the marijuana industry that would benefit growers, laboratories, dispensaries, and customers.


The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) has previously suspended laboratories who were caught inflating their lab results, begging the question of which labs can be trusted, and whether or not there are standards in place for Washington’s cannabis testing labs. This will be the topic of our next article.



Harvest Date

We could write a whole article on this subject alone, and lo and behold, here is that article. To summarize what we’ve previously written about harvest dates, they’re an unreliable metric for accessing the “freshness” (moisture) of flower, as the “freshness” completely depends on the producer’s curing, storage, and packaging. Puffin Farm, for example, harvests their outdoor crop once a year, but their cold curing and airtight packaging ensure that their flower retains moisture better than most indoor brands on the market.


Starting June 7, 2018, the harvest date will no longer be required on cannabis packaging. This is great news for outdoor growers [and the retailers who sell their bud], though this approach basically entails less transparency in an attempt to circumvent consumer naivety. I have mixed feelings about it. Then again, I would be in favor of a simple “pass/ fail” system for THC and CBD results for the same reason.



Total Cannabinoids & Total Terpenes

Data is pointless without context. Though we’re more interested in the total amount of cannabinoids than the THC percentage alone, a lab result for "total cannabinoids” without a breakdown only spawns more questions than it answers. When I see packaging that says "22% THC, 1% CBD, and 30% total cannabinoids,” I wanna know what that mysterious 7% is made up of! Is it CBG? CBN? CBC? THCV? D8-THC? Help a stoner out!


Similarly, when it comes to “total terpenes,” a number without a breakdown is also futile. Flower with “2.4% total terpenes” is meaningless when most flower averages about 2% terpenes; I want to know which terpenes account for that 2.4%, or at least the top 3 terps. In the case of concentrates, some of our budtenders evaluate the quality of extracts by total terpenes (most concentrates have about 4% terpenes, so it’s notable when a concentrate tests higher than that), though very few processors include terpene totals on their packaging, and of those who do, only a handful include a breakdown on the packaging like Oleum Extracts does.


Unfortunately terpene testing isn’t mandatory in Washington like it is in Nevada, and even though labs like Confidence Analytics charge less than a penny per gram for the test, barely 10% of their customers opt to do a terpene analysis. If your favorite brand doesn’t include terpene results on their packaging, contact them and say “show me the terps."


. . . . . . . . . .


We don’t want to underplay the importance of reliable lab results in a regulated cannabis economy; we need laboratories to test all cannabis products for pesticides and other harmful substances, but when smokers lend to much credence to the problematic [yet compulsory] metrics shown on weed packaging, everyone loses.


Instead of getting hung up on numerical values, try asking your budtender these questions instead:

  1. What’s the effect like?
  2. How’s the flavor?
  3. Have you tried it?
  4. Are these buds more moist or more dry?
  5. Which brands include terpene results on their packaging?
  6. What do you recommend?

We hope this article convinced you that lab results ought to be taken with a grain of salt, but in any case, check back later for our upcoming blog about the lack of standardization for Washington's cannabis testing labs.




Article by Ramsey Doudar; an in-house marketing and social media strategist at Herbn Elements. Ramsey's perspective is influenced by 1.5 years of budtending, 5 years as a cannabis industry marketing professional, and 10+ years of being a super picky medical patient.