After fully legalizing marijuana at the start of 2018, California’s cannabis industry has experienced its share of ups and downs, especially since implementing mandatory safety testing on July 1st. The state still does not have an approved set of regulations for governing the legal market, relying on temporary guidelines until revisions are finalized in early 2019. There is particular pressure to overhaul requirements and standards for the testing companies that stand between cannabis suppliers and the legal market, especially after last month’s sudden shutdown of a Northern California lab for conducting faulty pesticide tests.
Currently, temporary rules require all cannabis products to pass a range of lab tests before being approved for consumer distribution, like making sure THC is evenly distributed in edibles, checking marijuana buds for mold and confirming that the potency of a product is accurately labeled. Of the 23,864 batches of various products that California labs tested between July and November, 2,100 products were blocked from sale because the label overestimated the amount of THC. While the first two months of required testing resulted in a 20-percent failure rate, data collected through November shows that figure has dropped to 14 percent, with cannabis cookies, candies and tinctures having the most trouble meeting current standards.
“With any news rules, there’s always going to be a period of adjustment that takes place,” Alex Traverso, a spokesman for the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, told the Associated Press. “The cannabis industry in California adapts pretty quickly, and I think that’s what we’re seeing with these lower fail rates in testing. That’s encouraging.”
It is encouraging — so long as the companies tasked with testing cannabis products are producing accurate results. In November, Sacramento-based Sequoia Analytical Labs was forced to hand over its license after state regulators discovered it had been falsifying test results since the program began in July. Under the current rules, all cannabis products must be tested for 66 types of pesticides and other contaminants, like E. Coli, but Sequoia only tested for 44. As a result, all products tested by the lab and distributed to legal retailers were recalled and destroyed, but it’s likely that much of it had already been sold and consumed.
State regulators have not provided specifics on the case, but did confirm to the Associated Press that Sequoia Analytical Labs no longer has a license to test cannabis in California. In a statement posted on its website, Sequoia Analytical Labs blamed “a faulty instrument,” but admitted that its lab director was aware of the problem and “was secretly falsifying the results” for the remaining 22 pesticides. They have since been terminated, and the lab is seeking to have its license reinstated. The lab did not return Rolling Stone’s request for comment.
It’s impossible to say just how many cannabis products were approved for sale by the Sequoia during the five months of faulty testing, but given that only a few dozen testing companies have been issued licenses, it’s undoubtedly a lot. Of particular alarm is the fact that it took so long for regulators to catch on; testing companies act as gatekeepers, and are more likely to be targeted by those looking to bend the rules, or circumvent them entirely.
“We need more labs. We need better labs,” Swetha Kaul, chief scientific officer at Santa Ana-based testing company Cannalysis, told the AP. “We have bad actors, just like every other section of the industry.”
While Sequoia’s former lab director may have falsified the results only after a flawed instrument hindered a good faith effort, according to Josh Drayton of the California Cannabis Industry Association, there are plenty of shady characters in the industry who are willing to cheat. He told the AP that it’s an “open secret” that there are companies who have been known to pay top dollar for favorable results.
“We don’t want to create a pay-to-play system with our testing labs,” said Drayton. “We do need to make sure we get standard operating procedures.”