It was a number that would quite literally make your head spin because it represented the percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol — or THC, the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana — that one lab reported was contained in the cannabis flower from a Utah producer.
Even the strongest marijuana strains rarely break into the low 30% range, and some believe the physical limit of the plant to be in the mid-30s. Indeed, Sugar House Selects’ Ice Cream Cake Bud, coming in at 45.13% to be precise, might well have set a world record for the most potent weed on Earth.
The cultivator promoted the jaw-dropping report on its Instagram page, as did one local dispensary.
But the numbers didn’t pass the smell test for Christine Stenquist, a long-time patient advocate.
“I knew the lab results were wrong,” she said. “They were wrong and it goes against everything we’re trying to educate the public and community about. We’re not chasing highs, we’re trying to get good medicine.”
So she contacted the grower and the lab, Aromatic Plant Research Center — or APRC — who, after some wrangling, agreed to test a new sample. The result: 21.71% THC, less than half the original result.
The discrepancy poses some serious questions for Utah’s fledgling medical marijuana program. After all, we wouldn’t accept it if the labels on our prescription medications were off by that factor.
So who ensures consumers are getting what the label says, and not something much weaker or potentially much stronger?
Originally, all of Utah’s medical cannabis plants and products were going to be tested at the state lab run by the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food — which also tests dairy products, meat and crops — but it soon became apparent it couldn’t keep up. Backlogs were as long as five weeks, so the state licensed APRC to increase testing capacity.
The APRC lab sits in a standard-issue business complex in Lehi, where it got its start doing work for essential oils makers in the area, running tests similar to those it now does on cannabis products.
State agents deliver unmarked samples, chosen randomly from a crop of plants or processed products — like edibles and vape oils — to be tested. The samples are pulverized, treated with a solvent and run through a series of tests to measure the cannabinoid profile, detect residual solvents or microbes and detect moisture levels that might lead to mold.
The lab can also produce a flavor and aroma analysis. Products can also be sent out for tests to detect residual pesticides and metals.
Turnaround is usually a few days. Typically, the team runs tests on 15 samples a day, although with crops now being harvested they recently plowed through 44 in a single day.
As part of the state licensing process, the state sends samples it has already tested to see if they get the same results, said Will Duetschman, who spent 20 years as a professor of biochemistry at Westminster College and took over running APRC’s lab in early June.
Duetschman said he can’t comment on the Ice Cream Cake results that Stenquist flagged because of client confidentiality and because he hadn’t yet joined the lab when the sample came through.
But since coming aboard he said he has been focused on putting protocols in place to identify results that are outliers and retest the samples.
“We certainly are trying to make sure that really strange things do not go out the door ever again,” he said.
Cody James, manager of the Industrial Hemp and Medical Cannabis program at the Department of Agriculture and Food, said Utah has learned from how other states run their programs and believes there are adequate safeguards on the testing process.
The state monitors lab reports and can have tests rerun if something seems amiss. If consumers raise concerns, the state can have tests run again to make sure it matches what’s on the label. Most importantly, James said, both the state and ARPC labs are in fact catching things like foreign matter, pesticides, mold and residual solvents in products.
“Because we’re seeing that,” he said, “I feel confident we are looking at everything we need to and they’re catching the things that need to be caught.”
Justin Arriola, a cannabis industry consultant in Utah, said he has been frustrated by some of the results he’s seen from the labs.
“We’ve worked with both of the testing facilities in Utah and we’ve had problems with the accuracy from both of the labs,” he said. In some instances, he said, the results were off by as much as 30%.
Arriola said he’s had to pay for independent testing or to have products retested because it’s obvious some lab results were way off. Those extra tests can cost hundreds of dollars.
But it’s important, he said, especially when working with highly concentrated products, where a discrepancy in testing can make a big difference in the dose a patient gets.
“We’re working with potent products and we want people to understand the amount of medicine they’re getting,” Arriola told me.
Utah would not be the first state to encounter issues with cannabis labs.
In early 2019, a California lab was shut down for doctoring its data. Last October, an Oklahoma lab surrendered its license after being accused of falsifying data. And in December, a lab in Washington State was shut down after a whistleblower revealed it had been inflating the reported THC concentrations — since studies have shown plants with higher concentrations sell at a higher price.
I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that’s what is happening here. Duetschman struck me as sincere about ensuring the integrity and transparency of his lab. And frankly, if someone was making up numbers, they would’ve been better off to come up with something believable that wouldn’t raise red flags.
What seems to have happened is that someone made a mistake. And that mistake ended up on shelves, promoted by dispensaries and consumed by patients. What we don’t know is how many other less obvious mistakes might have slipped through the cracks, as well.
So how do we keep it from happening again?
Duetschman said part of it is building good communication, a willingness of cultivators and processors to talk to the labs when they see something that doesn’t make sense.
But a tight-knit community of growers and labs won’t solve all the problems in Utah’s budding marijuana industry.
State regulators need to do a better job monitoring the lab reports. They should have caught this anomaly, the mythical 45%, and had the sample retested before it landed on dispensary shelves.
Also, regular auditing of records could signal problems. In Nevada, records monitoring detected THC creep — where THC concentrations in products steadily climbed — pointing regulators to a problematic lab. In 2018, California regulators noticed one lab was detecting pesticides at a much lower rate than others. The lab ultimately forfeited its license.
What the program really needs is more independent labs — something James said the state would love to have, but none have stepped forward. More labs mean more capacity and the ability to rest random samples in different labs to see if they get the same results. If they don’t, you might have a problem.
And that will come with a cost, adding to Utah’s already expensive medical cannabis program.
But offering cheap products to patients doesn’t mean much if they can’t be assured that the medicine they’re actually getting is what’s on the label and if the doses they’re taking are going to be effective and, most importantly, safe.