Legal weed means safer weed. Government regulations protect the millions of Americans toking up from dangerous pesticides, molds, and other contaminants.
At least that's the promise.
Washington's pot-safety regulations have allowed a number of bad practices to slip through the cracks since the legal market opened in 2014. Regulators last year suspended one of the labs licensed by the state to test legal weed, Testing Technologies of Poulsbo, after an audit of the lab showed it had failed less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the weed tested at its facility. Poor lab practices meant an "extremely real" possibility that pot that should have failed safety tests made it to the market, according the audit obtained in a record request. Scary stuff. The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) suspended Testing Technologies for 180 days, but it seems the message didn't land hard enough.
Peak Analytics of Bellingham, another one of 18 labs licensed by the WSLCB, came under fire in April after the Washington Cannabis Laboratory Association (composed of the Werc Shop, Confidence Analytics, and Analytical 360) flagged unusually high THC results and abnormally low quality assurance failures in the lab’s reports. According to the accusations, Peak Analytics allegedly engaged in the same sketchy behavior as Testing Technologies—the pot-lab equivalent of fudging the numbers to bypass those pesky safety standards.
David Otto, an attorney representing Peak Analytics, denied the accusations and said recent proficiency tests proved the lab was in full compliance with the state’s safety standards. “It’s very easy to make accusations; it’s another thing to actually support them,” Otto said. The WSLCB hasn’t taken any public disciplinary actions against the company. Still, the troubles facing both labs raises questions of how Washington should best ensure that the companies testing our weed are competent.
It turns out there is a simple solution.
If the WSLCB required the standard certificate required for most government lab work, the same standard that agencies like the USDA requires, they would bring the highest bar of competency and accuracy to the state's pot labs without using any taxpayer funds to run the system. This certificate, called an ISO 17025 Accreditation, is the international standard for ensuring labs consistently return accurate testing results. Holding the accreditation requires constant testing. Participating labs conduct round-robin tests on one another multiple times a year. If one lab's results are too far off from the rest of the pack, they lose their accreditation, keeping everyone else in check.
When an agency like the USDA requires the accreditation, it is essentially farming out the vetting process for a lab's accuracy, leaving the government off the hook for deciding what constitutes competency in the pot-lab world.
The WSLCB doesn't use this respected standard. Instead of requiring an ISO 17025 Accreditation, the board creates its own list of lab proficiency requirements—much of it borrowed from the 17025 list itself—and pays a contractor to test the labs. Once tested, labs only have annual reviews and do not conduct the round-robin tests that ask labs to keep one another in line.
Joanna Eide, a rules coordinator at the WSLCB, said the state is aware of possible competency problems in the licensed pot labs, adding that officials are planning an update of the rules to bring requirements closer in line with the ISO 17025 checklist.
"There are a couple of different goals that are associated with this rulemaking, but one is to increase the accuracy and accountability of these labs," Eide said.
Eide said the WSLCB may eventually require the accreditation, but it won't be making the change anytime soon because of the cost burden it would put on the private pot labs (switching over would not cost the state at all). For the foreseeable future, the state will continue to use elements of the ISO 17025 checklist without taking the full leap.
Randy Haskin, an organic chemist and co-owner of CannaSafe Analytics, can't make sense of this approach. "Why take out parts [of ISO 17025] and put it into your regulations so that now you have to police the system, when you can get the same thing for free simply by saying they have to maintain an ISO accreditation?" Haskin asked.
CannaSafe was one of the first labs to receive Washington State approval to test pot when the legal market opened, but the ISO 17025 Accredited lab didn't make it more than a year in our state's market before the company decided the state's standards were too low for a lab of its precision to make money.
"We did testing for about a year, and then we analyzed where the market was heading. It was definitely in the wrong direction, and [that is] where it remains today," Haskin said. "We were very happy that we left."
Haskin's lab is now operating in California, where regulations for the state's brand-new recreational pot system will require pot labs to hold ISO 17025 Accreditation. Like Haskin said, California's government won't be spending any money to use this accreditation, but there's still an added cost for each individual lab to meet the higher requirements.
Pot shoppers will likely be paying those extra costs every time they head to their local dispensary, but shelling out a little more for safety seems like a good investment.