In an industry where high product prices can push consumers to the black market, marijuana businesses must continually look for ways to keep costs down. However, when the product being sold can be contaminated, which could lead to consumer illness and death, regulators naturally want marijuana growers to pay for expensive lab testing of their products. Unfortunately, that testing is far from perfect in today’s marijuana industry.

As a result, the problems of marijuana testing lead to far-reaching effects. Let’s take a closer look at some of those problems and effects.

Price and Supply

By 2021, High Times estimates that marijuana testing labs will be worth $1.4 billion, which represents an annual growth rate greater than 10%. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, there’s a problem.

In an industry where high product prices can push consumers to the black market, marijuana businesses must continually look for ways to keep costs down. However, when the product being sold can be contaminated, which could lead to consumer illness and death, regulators naturally want marijuana growers to pay for expensive lab testing of their products. And that’s the problem.

Unfortunately, marijuana testing is far from perfect in today’s marijuana industry. It doesn’t necessarily keep patients and consumers safe and it drives costs up for marijuana businesses and ultimately, end users.

The problems of marijuana testing lead to far-reaching effects. Let’s take a closer look at some of those problems and effects.

Price and Supply

Lab testing costs money, and in an industry where many participants aren’t generating large sums of profits yet, adding expensive product testing can cause higher product prices for consumers.

Furthermore, many states have very few approved testing laboratories. When testing is required too frequently and labs can’t keep up, cultivators often are unable to deliver enough product to dispensaries. This leads to more demand than supply.

When prices are too high or supplies can’t meet demands, consumers are more likely to purchase marijuana illegally. Licensed businesses lose sales and consumers could get lower quality product.

Lack of Research

Since marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, only a small amount of money is set aside for cannabis research. Therefore, we know very little about how contaminants affect marijuana products or the people who use those products.

Therefore, no one truly knows what they should be testing marijuana for, what factors are actually “bad” indicators, and what should be allowed, banned, or limited. Each state’s regulators have implemented their own sets of contaminants, such as pesticides and mold, which labs are required to look for when testing marijuana samples. Unfortunately, no one really knows if those are the contaminants they should be testing for or not.

Even if labs are certified by an organization like the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), that certification simply means labs are following the same testing processes. It doesn’t mean they’re conducting the right tests in the right ways.

No Set Standards and Procedures

With limited research, there are no set standards or procedures for marijuana testing labs to follow. Different labs use different methods and equipment to test for the same contaminants. As a result, two different labs could provide very different results for the same sample of marijuana.

This problem was analyzed in a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found 87% of the edible samples that researchers tested in California and Washington included 10% of more active ingredients per milligram than what was stated on the edibles’ package labels.

Since there are no set standards and procedures, different states test for many contaminants in very different ways. Also, some states use pharmaceutical product testing as a model for marijuana testing while others use agricultural product testing processes.

Inconsistent and Inadequate Results

In addition to the inconsistent results discussed above related to no set standards and procedures for labs to follow, some inconsistencies in testing results are leveraged by industry players to push alternative agendas. For example, if two labs are known for producing very different results related to the amount of THC found in marijuana products, a cultivator might choose the lab that provides higher THC level results since many consumers want higher THC levels in their marijuana products.

Another example is when a lab intentionally misreports testing results in order to retain clients who are looking for specific results regardless of accuracy. A study conducted by Harvard University PhD student Michael Zoorob and Leafly’s principal research scientist, Nick Jikomes, found that labs in Washington State often overreport THC and CBD levels.

In some states, cultivators choose the marijuana samples that they send to labs for testing, which means they can affect their testing results by choosing their best samples. This leads to inadequate results for consumers.

Advantages to Big Businesses

Marijuana testing can also benefit big businesses over small businesses. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, larger growers can generate greater economies of scale when moving many small batches of samples through a testing facility compared to smaller businesses. The cost per gram for testing is much higher for smaller cultivators.

How to Fix the Marijuana Testing Problem

Fixing the problems related to marijuana testing that have such widespread effects on the entire cannabis industry will take time, but it can be done. The first step is to develop a set of standards and procedures for all cultivators and labs to follow to ensure results are accurate and comparable between labs.

The next step is accrediting labs and monitoring them closely to ensure they’re following those standards and procedures. If a lab cannot achieve consistent results, it should not be allowed to operate in the industry. In other words, labs should be held accountable for the results they’re providing.

What other ways can the testing problem in the marijuana industry be solved? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Originally published 12/28/17. Updated 6/22/18.

Susan Gunelius, Lead Analyst for Cannabiz Media and author of Marijuana Licensing Reference Guide: 2017 Edition, is also President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company offering, copywriting, content marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, and strategic branding services. She spent the first half of her 25-year career directing marketing programs for AT&T and HSBC. Today, her clients include household brands like Citigroup, Cox Communications, Intuit, and more as well as small businesses around the world. Susan has written 11 marketing-related books, including the highly popular Content Marketing for Dummies, 30-Minute Social Media Marketing, Kick-ass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps, The Ultimate Guide to Email Marketing, and she is a popular marketing and branding keynote speaker. She is also a Certified Career Coach and Founder and Editor in Chief of Women on Business, an award-winning blog for business women. Susan holds a B.S. in marketing and an M.B.A in management and strategy.