Washington Sets Emergency Standards for Laboratory Testing
By Zack Shrigley
“If a laboratory fails a round of PT, the laboratory must investigate the root cause of the laboratory’s performance and establish a corrective action report for each unsatisfactory analytical result.”
Standard Operating Procedure While these three words are applied in many facets of our consumer cannabis industry, the area where they hold the highest importance is often glossed over entirely. Standards are an important part of any industry; they set the tone for what’s acceptable and what isn’t—in practice. When standards pertain to growing cannabis, they orbit around what chemicals you can and cannot use for production. When they pertain to distribution, standards define how and where cannabis may be sold. When we standardize processing, we end up with regulated methodology for operating equipment. Now we come to perhaps the least standardized sub-industry: laboratory testing. Standardizing the analysis of cannabis is difficult for many reasons, but the most prominent—and arguably easy to fix—is the difficulty of regulating the regulators.
When there’s no governing body to hold a company accountable for its procedures, the credibility of an entire sub-industry falls into question.This lends credence to the need for a national standard by which testing is regulated. Currently, you can compare two samples across multiple state-certified labs and the discrepancies between them may be outside the margin of error. This is why standards are important: Continuity is the cornerstone of any scientific endeavor. Without a regulatory body wielding the power to enforce standards, loopholes can be exploited in favor of VIP clientele, while human error isn’t caught and corrected.
Perhaps the largest consequence of all is the monopoly that weighted-testing puts on the analysis industry in whole. Let’s pretend there are two laboratories with no regulatory system ensuring procedural continuity. “Lab A” corrupts their testing in favor of their clientele; “Lab B” tests honestly but, as a result, is consistently five percent lower in their results. Lab A starts to pull business away from Lab B because the producers paying for testing notice a trend that helps their bottom line; more cannabinoids printed on packaging equals more money. Lab A ends up owning a controlling share of the market because nobody wants to test at a facility that’s always five percent lower. The difference between these two labs isn’t the concern of anyone besides the consumer because, without standards and a regulatory body to enforce them, there’s unlimited headroom for corruption.
Testing cannabis isn’t anything new; breaking down a substance and sniffing out its individual chemical components is an 80-year-old science. Organic chemistry and data collection have always been a loose game of pseudoscience telephone in the cannabis industry—because of the federal government’s prohibition on research. Around 2011 the industry witnessed a boom in “extraction artists” who pioneered the assembly of repurposed sanitary-spool into closed-loop hydrocarbon extractors that continue to be popular in the industry today. That “scientific-minded” movement (most weren’t scientists, but they had “labs”) left the industry with an insatiable appetite for analytics. The methodology for testing was almost exclusively borrowed from other industries and the trial and error involved in implementing new processes was all but avoided. Because of the mature technology though, the numerous ways to accomplish similar goals meant every other lab used a different method to test samples. The community-driven standards that made their way into use during the medical boom set the stage for an easy transition into the recreational industry. Having community-driven and -enforced standards, though, presents the problem of accountability, because there’s no scary governing body to bring down the hammer on misbehaving companies.
There are a few ways to test cannabis for cannabinoids, terpenoids, residual solvents, pesticides, molds and bacteria. The industry standard is a process called high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC). HPLC leads the way in cannabis testing standards because the sample being tested is not vaporized into a gas before being analyzed. Heating up a sample speeds up degradation of certain terpenoids and, perhaps most importantly, releases carboxylic acid molecules from intact cannabinoids while possibly degrading a fraction into CBN (an inactive byproduct of thc degradation). Because HPLC uses a liquid carrier solution instead of vapor, the phytocannabinoids being examined are preserved in their original state. From these intact profiles that reflect the parent plant, technicians can make accurate determinations regarding the exact composition of a each sample.
With technology in place and standards for testing understood, but not totally defined, individual states have been left to implement and enforce the methodology to use. In most states, the burden of enforcement falls on the producers, with little care taken to qualify individual laboratories. Because most of the regulation is focused at the production level and the ability to bring healthy cannabis to market, almost no emphasis has been pinned on the accuracy of testing facilities. Sometimes the errors are obvious and verge on comical—like in cases where packaging concentrations add up to over 100 percent total cannabinoids.
Washington intends to lead the way in facilitating a framework that holds laboratories accountable for bad test results. With the fear of contaminated cannabis looming over the heads of state officials, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) adopted emergency legislation—effective immediately—that holds all 14 state-certified labs to the highest standards in the country. The same system is already in place across Oregon and Colorado and is set to be unleashed starting right now in Washington state.
The scope of this random testing is simple: The WSLCB submits multiple samples of known composition to each certified lab twice a year for testing. The results from the lab in question are then compared against the results from a third-party lab and all results must then fall within a margin of testing error. The repercussions for failing a test are swift and harsh. Laboratories that fail a round of testing are subject to losing their license if the testing is failed because of blatant oversight by staff, falsified documentation or multiple inconsistent results. Once a discrepancy is identified by the state, a laboratory has one option.
“If a laboratory fails a round of PT, the laboratory must investigate the root cause of the laboratory’s performance and establish a corrective action report for each unsatisfactory analytical result. The corrective action report must be kept and maintained by the laboratory for a period of three (3) years, and made available for review during an on-site assessment or inspection, and provided to the WSLCB or WSLCB’s vendor upon request.”
After the problems are identified and corrective action report filed, the lab is required to certify itself by completing another round of testing. Multiple failed attempts in a row disqualify the laboratory from continuing to operate under I-502 law.
As the national appetite for information grows on a consumer level, the industry at large is left twiddling its thumbs in anticipation. Jumping the gun and diving in headfirst makes for an interesting short game—but it’s risky work being a revolutionary. The landscape is fraught with a changing regulatory framework, which is increasingly forcing less diligent cannabis entrepreneurs out of the industry. The safe way to navigate these tumultuous waters is slow and steady. As regulatory framework is set in stone and standardization is implemented across the nation, one thing is for certain: The pioneers who are paving the way for the future are doing it with unwavering courage. Some have fallen and many will continue to fall as the states line up behind Colorado, Oregon and now Washington, to fully regulate cannabis as an industry, one standard at a time.