Marijuana Testing Continues To Be A Major Issue

By Kelly Burch 03/21/18

A lack of federal regulation is leaving marijuana consumers in the dark about the content of their pot.

a gloved hand holding marijuana in test tubes

A lot of Americans now live in a state where it is legal to buy marijuana in some form, whether recreationally or medicinally.

While above-board sales of cannabis have become more widespread, there continue to be many problems with testing marijuana, making it difficult for consumers to know how much of the active ingredient they are consuming, and if there are pesticides and other contaminants in the bud that they buy. 

“The big challenge with this industry is the speed at which it innovates and evolves,” Danica Lee, director of public health inspections for the city of Denver, told The Portland Press Herald. “It continues to be a bit of an adventure.”

Because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, regulations and testing requirements are made on the state level and vary widely. 

“Some states are regulating it as if it’s a pharmaceutical, and some states are regulating it as if it’s an agricultural product,” said Julianne Nassif of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. 

However, a Washington Post report found that within the United States, there are widespread discrepancies in how marijuana is tested.

Generally, consumers want to know the levels of THC (the active ingredient or cannabinoid that causes the "high" feeling); CBD, a cannabinoid that doesn’t cause intoxication but can be used to treat medical conditions like epilepsy; other, less significant cannabinoids; and contaminants like pesticides.

With this knowledge, consumers are better equipped to understand the potency of the drug they are buying, and the potential risks from contaminants. 

Yet, it’s hard to get reliable data on how much of these components retail marijuana contains. One major reason is that traditional labs will not handle marijuana because it is a federally banned substance. This has opened the door for labs that specifically test marijuana, but that are less regulated than traditional labs. 

“Precision is costly, and states haven’t set standards about how much precision is required,” Michael Zoorob, a PhD student in the Department of Government at Harvard University, wrote in The Washington Post. “Labs have incentives to charge growers lower prices—and, therefore, deliver less precise answers—and to report more THC and CBD, since cannabinoid-rich products sell for more.”

Zoorob and Nick Jikomes, Leafly’s principal research scientist, who holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard University, examined results from labs in Washington state, and found that labs often overreport potency of marijuana, leaving consumers ill-informed about what they are buying. 

Since marijuana regulation is loosely controlled for now, consumers will continue to have to use unreliable information when purchasing pot. 

“Until [there is federal regulation], states will continue to be the laboratories for regulating this emerging industry—and the devil is in the details,” Zoorob writes. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.