Cannabis testing might need an overhaul, here’s why

cannabis testing reform

Legalized cannabis promised a lot of things. One of the prominent points was that products sold by licensed dispensaries would be safer than those sold by a neighborhood dealer. As each state struggles with individual testing discrepancies or outright fraudulent results, it may be time to ask whether the current testing lab structure can deliver on the promise of safe goods.

The real question is whether private enterprise can be trusted with public safety at all, or if this arm of the cannabis industry should be under new management.

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How does cannabis testing work?

Labs that test medical and adult-use cannabis products are owned and operated as private businesses. Some work like small businesses and others are supported by massive private equity fundraising, with others in between those polarities. They all work for profit, which keeps the lights on and the chromatography machines whirring.

Each state decides on its own regulatory structure for cannabis, and testing labs are included. That means there is no one standard for labs between states for things like maintaining machines, how to test certain products, and more.

The question is whether this testing method has built a system consumers can trust. Do modern testing labs have enough checkpoints that they won’t make mistakes or worse: forge results to gain more customers? Not always, there have been issues leading to fine, temporary shutdowns or closures in the testing space.

Independent labs aren’t all bad, but some are

Not all cannabis testing labs are untrustworthy. In fact, many have helped detect product issues, triggering recalls that may have saved someone from getting sick. However, there are just as many stories about cannabis labs pushing out test results with boosted THC levels. As of January 1st, SFGate reported that California regulators barred 20 labs from testing flower until updating operations to meet new state standards.

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This is considered a pay-to-play tactic known by industry insiders. Since many consumers are still looking to buy flower, extracts, and vapes with the highest THC, a lab offering consistently higher results might sway more cannabis brands to choose their services over a competitor.

Not only has this perpetuated the cycle of customers looking for upwards of 30 percent THC on their package of flower, but it’s led to fraudulent test results that may lead some to wonder what else isn’t true. If a brand is willing to doctor the cannabinoid tests, they may also be fine with leaving out harmful pesticides, heavy metals, or other dangerous compounds to get their clients’ products a regulatory “pass.”

This problem has a few answers. However, without federal oversight, it may not be possible to unite testing labs as they exist now.

How to solve the testing lab puzzle

Quality assurance certifications are one way that cannabis testing labs show consumers they operate under strict operations and ethical guidelines. Labs can be IOS/IEC 17025 certified, which is an international accreditation given to those operating at a set standard.

Interested labs can be accredited through third parties like the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA) and the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB). The only issue with this certification method is that there is an exchange of money between the accreditor and the lab, bringing the true cost of doing business to question.

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Accreditation associations can be helpful and, in most cases, are reliable, but leaving space for industry opens a small rip in the safeholds against those that might take advantage. The answer to this conundrum might be in–house, the state house, that is.

Imagine regulatory bodies take over the testing process, ultimately removing enterprise from the equation. At the very least, this would create a uniform batch of testing COAs and methods state-wide– best case scenario, it makes test results ironclad. This still leaves room for fraud, of course, but it may be simpler to find if operations were under one roof.

Most states have agriculture testing labs that could possibly be 420-friendly with a few updates. Additionally, the states with adult-use cannabis are also generally collecting big money in tax dollars, which could go toward the retrofitting that might be required to include these products.

It’s a stretch to expect the industry to have been built flawlessly on the first try—there was no exact precedent to look to for guidance when establishing cannabis legalization. It appears there’s room for improvement in the testing space. While testing labs are crucial, knowing how to regulate and structure them wasn’t clear initially. Perhaps it’s time to take another look.

Cara Wietstock is Senior Content Producer of and has been working in the cannabis space since 2011. She has covered the cannabis business beat for Ganjapreneur and The Spokesman Review. You can find her living in Bellingham, Washington with her husband, son, and a small zoo of pets.