Pot being tested at a state-certified cannabis lab in Washington.
Pot being tested at a state-certified cannabis lab in Washington. Lester Black

Lawmakers in Olympia have lost trust in the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) to ensure product safety in Washington’s billion dollar legal weed industry, voting Saturday to remove the agency's control over certifying cannabis labs.

The Washington Senate voted 44 to 1 on Saturday to pass House Bill 2052, which would hand over pot testing regulations to the Department of Ecology and set up a task force to establish protocols over how to better regulate cannabis safety. The House had already passed the bill last month. The bill needs to be confirmed again by the House and then signed by the Governor to become law, but it now appears that it’s only a matter of time before the LCB loses control of regulating pot product safety in Washington.

Rep. Derek Stanford, a Democrat who represents Bothell and was one of four sponsors on the legislation, told me Saturday that it’s a “significant concern” that not all of Washington’s pot labs are “of the same quality and caliber.”

“It’s been known for a while that we needed to have a stronger accreditation program for the labs,” Stanford said. “There are some problems in the way that system runs where producers have found some ways to abuse that system to try to get results more to their liking and that’s not acceptable.”

Washington pot laws require that a sample from every single batch of legal cannabis products—from pre-rolled joints and loose-leaf flower to concentrates, vape cartridges, and edibles—receive mandatory safety and potency testing. The state currently licenses 15 such labs spread around the state to do the work. The labs test the safety of the products, looking for dangerous molds, yeast, and water content, as well as the overall cannabinoid potency of the products.

These state-certified private labs hold considerable power over Washington’s legal weed market, which accounts for over a billion dollars of sales a year according to 502data.com. The labs act as a clearinghouse for every gram of pot sold in the state, deciding both which products are safe enough to sell as well as determining the THC potency of those products, which largely dictates the price point for products on retail shelves. Pot growers can receive more money for higher potency pot, creating an incentive for pot labs to work with labs to game the system into delivering higher numbers.

And Saturday’s vote comes after years of evidence that some of Washington’s state-certified pot labs were routinely flouting testing rules and inflating pot potency values. In 2016, auditors hired by the LCB found that Testing Technologies in Poulsbo was consistently reporting inaccurate data and had "blatant disregard for good laboratory practices as well as sound scientific methods." The auditors found a handwritten note from a pot farmer asking the lab’s director to only report THC values over 20 percent. Then in the summer of 2017 auditors found that a second lab, Peak Analytics in Bellingham, was also unable to perform basic safety tests and was reporting fake potency test results.

Whos going to make sure all of this legal weed is safe?
Who's going to make sure all of this legal weed is safe? Lester Black

The LCB has been consistently slow to respond to these apparent problems in the system, with the industry and even the general public complaining of lab testing problems long before the LCB has taken any action. One of the most prominent critics of the system has been Jim MacRae, a data scientists who consults for the cannabis industry. He has used his blog to point out problems in specific labs, pointing to trouble at Testing Technologies and Peak Analytics months or even years before the LCB acted. MacRae told me on Friday that he was happy to see the Legislature give control of the labs to Ecology.

“They [the Department of Ecology] know how to do it. They have the capability. It was just like night and day compared to working with the LCB. With all due respect to the LCB, they are not scientists but Ecology is,” MacRae said.

The LCB itself is in support of giving up control over lab testing requirements. When I spoke with Rick Garza, executive director of the LCB, in February after ten lawmakers claimed the LCB had a “toxic culture” of enforcement he said he didn’t want control of the labs anymore.

“We should transfer standard of the integrity of the labs to the Department of Ecology. We don’t have the expertise,” Garza said. “Let’s get the Department of Ecology to assist us with making sure we have labs that have integrity.”

Now it appears it’s only a matter of time before the LCB is fired and Department of Ecology takes over how to force pot labs to play by the rules. The House version of the bill gives that authority to Ecology in July of 2022 whereas the Senate version waits till July 2024. The date will need to be worked out between the two chambers and voted on again before it is sent to the governor’s office for Inslee’s signature. Stanford said he will try to push for the shorter time frame. MacRae said the one problem with the bill was how long it took to hand over control to Ecology.

“I think it’s a very good bill. If anything else, move the timeline up,” MacRae said.