As cannabis legalization continues its march across the country, accurate testing of cannabis products has emerged as one of the most visible consumer concerns.
Testing assures standards of quality, health and safety, according to Ryan Treacy, founder and CEO of C4 Laboratories in Mesa, AZ. The state of Arizona has established “no standards to ensure the potency, efficacy and safety of cannabis products. Testing is very close to us. We saw a need for this. Patients need to know what’s in their products.”
The bottom line for consumers, then? Says Treacy, “Do you really know what you’re putting into your body?”
Treacy’s company, co-owned with five others, tests for dozens of genetic characteristics, as well as solvents used in the growth and processing of cannabis products. For instance, C4 can identify the potency and occurrence of all ten cannabinoids, including THC-A, CBD, CBN and CBC. Terpenes such as cymene, isopulegol, ocimene and terpinolene can be identified, among others. And C4, like other labs, can identify a myriad of solvents used in the growing and manufacturing of cannabis and its products. When consumed in concentrated volumes, these solvents can be harmful. Chemicals such as methane, benzene, n-butane and acetone may all be present in the cannabis products consumers use, as well as other toxic residuals.
While testing for quality and health purposes seems an obvious requirement, many states, including Arizona, are not regulating this side of the cannabis industry. “That’s frustrating,” Treacy says. “We passed [cannabis] as medicine without assurances to the quality of the medicine. We would like to see the many facets of the Arizona cannabis industry coalesce around the principles of accurate, state-regulated testing so that consistent, scientifically valid SOPs (standard operating procedures) are established to protect patients from fraud and unsafe products.”
Treacy is also concerned about poorly-run testing facilities. Some labs are solid, he says, and maintain a standard of ethics and testing procedures that are nearly unimpeachable. Others, he says, don’t.
“Just look at the sanitary standards required of the food industry,” Treacy says. “Standards and regulations are just as important to medical cannabis.”
Aaron Hicks is director of laboratory operations at C4. He’s concerned for the industry as well. “No one is watching what labs are publishing. Some labs might have accountants doing the testing—doing a chemist’s work—with no scientific background, and no immersion in science.”
Treacy points to the complications that arise from poor cultivation methods, sloppy extraction processes and slipshod manufacturing. “Even washing your hands, wearing hairnets or gloves—basic sanitary methods—aren’t always followed.”
Treacy has been pushing for state-regulated testing at the capitol. “I’m trying to get discussions going in the legislature. I’ve been advocating. We have some of our clients advocating—growers, dispensaries, product manufacturers. I know people spending tens of thousands of dollars on this.” But Treacy is also aware of the staunch opposition he faces in the Arizona legislature. “Some legislators don’t want to legitimize cannabis.” State-mandated testing, he says, would classify marijuana as legitimate medicine.
Another staff member at C4, Hope Jones, a Ph.D. and the company’s chief scientific officer, believes the state could enact decent testing requirements, if they so desired. “There are regulatory models from other industries from which Arizona could borrow.” She cites the food, pharmaceutical and tobacco industries. “Arizona has the opportunity to do this right,” Jones says.
Another lab owner, Tabitha Hauer of Desert Valley Testing in Phoenix, agrees with Jones. Required testing, she says, is going to take time. “We’re such a new industry,” Hauer says. “We’re already testing for a lot more things than when we first started.”
Hauer is an organic chemist with more than 17 years of experience in her profession. She began Desert Valley Testing in 2014, in part because she suffers from a disease that will eventually claim her eyesight. “I know the pain relief I get from medical marijuana,” she says. “I’m a patient. That’s why I started Desert Valley Testing.”
And while she supports a state-mandated system that could assure the quality and safety of cannabis consumables, she does think there are other issues that may need more immediate attention, including the proper labeling of cannabis products. “Like a regular prescription, there needs to be accurate information provided to the patient. Clear labeling is important.”
She also supports high standards of professionalism when it comes to testing. “You need to understand chemistry to know what you’re doing. You need to understand chromatography. You need to understand the chemistry behind cannabinoids.” She touts her staff’s education and 95-plus years of laboratory experience. “None of my chemists are just button pushers.”
Finally, both Hauer and Treacy agree that transparency is a high priority in their respective businesses. Both labs invite their clients and the curious to tour their labs and ask about their quality-assurance programs.
As Hauer says, ask questions at your dispensary. Become informed. Consider your next flower, vape, topical or oil. Do you really know what you’re consuming?