As the market matures, cannabis consumers have been given the opportunity to witness an apparent increase in credibility of the goods becoming widely available. Gone are the days of blindly trusting a dealer’s word — now strains and edibles can be purchased at dispensaries with detailed labels specifying the THC content in each product. However, a recent study diminished that fantasy of progress, revealing that the vast majority of labels on medical marijuana edibles in the three cities studied had misreported the product’s potency.
A team led by Johns Hopkins professor Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D, analyzed the THC content of 75 edible products from 47 different companies that they gathered in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles and found that 60 percent had overvalued and 23 percent had undervalued the potency of the edible. Only 17 percent of the edibles studied had accurate labels.
“The degree with which edibles were mislabeled was shocking,” said Vandrey, who said he conducted the study because he had some suspicions, but did not expect such stark results. “If I lived in California or Washington,” he said, “I would have no confidence in what I’m buying.”
Vandrey said his team found one edible that was labeled as containing 200 milligrams of THC when it really had only 2 milligrams, a proportion he said was mirrored in about seven other products they analyzed. On the flip side, his team also found one edible that contained over 1,200 milligrams of THC, an amount so large he said he “couldn’t imagine” what would happen to the person who ingested it unknowingly.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, called for increased regulation in the cannabis market to ensure patients and consumers are not being cheated or overdosed.
“No matter where you stand on the issue, accurate labels are just something that makes sense, particularly with cannabis where the difference in doses can have such a profoundly different effect,” Vandrey said. “This goes beyond whether legalized marijuana is right or wrong. If it exists, it should be regulated.”
Currently, both Colorado and Washington mandate potency testing, though only in their recreational cannabis markets, and the level of enforcement around edibles potency is unclear. Vandrey said he believes that both states have legislation in the works to move potency testing laws over into the medical cannabis market, but that he doesn’t believe any bills have passed yet.
Since Colorado first enacted its mandatory recreational edible potency testing, licensed laboratories have been successfully testing goods from companies that have found creative ways to package distinct and accurate doses, said Genifer Murray, the founder and president of a Colorado laboratory called CannLabs. But she said this is the exception, as Colorado’s medical marijuana market and other states have little regulation, so that even those who try and test their products often fail because of the lack of consistent rules for laboratory practices
“What is happening in unregulated markets is you have people that are not qualified running tests,” said Murray. “Especially in California, you have people that not only do not know what they’re doing, but also are ‘dry labbing,’ which means they don’t have any instrumentation at all, they just give you a value.”
In California, the 2008 Sherman Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Law prohibits mislabeling of all products, and yet cannabis edibles manufacturers ignore the law without effective enforcement to incentivize them, said Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D, who worked on the study at the Werc Shop in Washington where the team tested the edibles.
“Producers simply need to interact more with labs,” said Raber. “There are some producers that are very diligent, and they are the ones that are being far more successful in our opinion because they are the ones expanding their business. It’s not a crazy request to test your products before you sell them. We don’t have to go to the moon. We just have to be responsible and professional.”
Raber and Murray both said they have seen producers test their edibles in a lab one time when creating their recipes, but that most do not return to test each batch to control for variation in the potency of ingredients. Both said potency should be tested twice, in the THC content of the initial ingredients and the end product, which would only cost $100 in tests — a price Raber said is small considering that thousands of edibles can be made in one batch.
The team behind the study, which also included Mark E. Raber, Brad Douglass, Ph.D, and Cameron Miller at the The Werc Shop and Marcel O. Bonn-Miller, Ph.D, of the University of Pennsylvania, hopes to continue their research in markets across the country, as the study’s data from only three specific cities cannot be extrapolated.
However, the team did feel comfortable extrapolating their data from 47 different edible companies to the entire city’s market because, as Vandrey said, the discrepancies were “found across the board” and the items analyzed were chosen at random by unbiased researchers — people hired to obtain a medical marijuana card and purchase edibles for the first time with no prior experience to sway them.
The study did not name the specific edible companies that had sold mislabeled products because the purpose of the study, Vandrey said, was to pressure any one company into reform but rather to use the research as a way of pressuring the industry as a whole to improve.
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