Over the last three years, pot smokers have paid the State of Washington more than $400 million in cannabis excise taxes. Some of that revenue was supposed to be paying for safer weed. But after two labs were suspended for failing to accurately test the safety and potency of pot, it's time to ask the question: How do we know that regulated legal weed is safer weed?
Based on lab audits commissioned by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB), the state agency that regulates recreational cannabis, it looks like the state might not be doing its job in keeping bad weed out of pot shops.
This summer, for example, Bellingham-based cannabis-testing lab Peak Analytics was suspended after an audit found that it was using poor testing practices that failed to accurately conduct microbial analysis during a sample test. The lab was unable to appropriately conduct a coliform test, which tests pot for microbes like salmonella, E. coli, and mold, which can make people sick.
The audit found that the lab was also using poor lab practices in calculating THC potency, a key indicator in pricing retail cannabis—where the higher the THC, the higher the price. In one instance, Peak Analytics had tested a sample of Blue Dream at 37.2 percent THC—an exceedingly high number for flower—but could not provide auditors with any information behind the figure.
Peak Analytics isn't the first certified pot lab to be suspended in Washington. Testing Technologies of Poulsbo was suspended in April of last year after auditors found "consistent inaccuracies of original data" and violations that amounted to "blatant disregard for good laboratory practices as well as sound scientific methods."
The WSLCB audit also unearthed a handwritten note from a customer requesting that the lab's science director, Dustin Newman, not report any low potency tests results.
"Hey Dustin," the note read. "Can you do me a favor and not post any flower results under 20 percent, oil under 75 percent, and hash under 40 percent. Please hit me up with an e-mail and I will get you another sample for re-test."
Auditors said they don't know if Newman complied with his customer's request.
Two suspensions in the few years since recreational pot shops opened isn't necessarily cause for alarm, but both suspensions fit into a similar and troubling pattern. Both were delivered to the busiest pot labs in the state—and they were handed out only after private citizens repeatedly warned the state that the lab in question wasn't playing by the rules.
In both cases, early warning came from Jim MacRae, a private data scientist based in Woodinville who uses the state's publicly available data to analyze the legal marketplace. In May of 2016, MacRae published a blog post pointing out that most of the pot tests were going to a small group of labs that were giving out favorable results to their customers. MacRae didn't name the specific labs in his blog post, but he told The Stranger that by August of 2016 he had told the WSLCB that Peak Analytics appeared to be breaking the rules. For the next year, he continued to warn the agency and publish more troubling data on his blog, including one thinly veiled criticism of Peak Analytics in March of 2017 titled "Peak Potency—Lab Friendliness Is Back with a Gusto." A month later, three other licensed labs filed official complaints against Peak Analytics and a Leafly story covering the allegations circled widely on the internet.
If the state didn't smell the smoke until private citizens shouted that the building was on fire, how much can we trust the WSLCB to ensure the health of the system?
Rick Garza, the director of the WSLCB, declined to comment for this story, but it took the agency more than a year to arrive at the same conclusion that MacRae had come to just by looking at the publicly available data. And this wasn't the first time MacRae beat the WSLCB to the punch. In January of 2016, the Seattle Times wrote about MacRae's analysis of sketchy lab behavior. Four months later, the state suspended Testing Technologies. According to the state's audit, Testing Technologies had been giving its customers "the highest potency numbers compared with all testing labs currently in the program."
This isn't just about getting all the THC you pay for: Pot labs have a public health impact. Faulty testing by both of these labs likely let some tainted weed slip into the market. The auditors who looked into Testing Technologies wrote that there was an "extremely real" possibility that "false negatives will result and product that should have failed would have gone to market."
Does that mean we all need to flush our legal pot down the toilet? Of course not. Most of us, myself included, had been buying untested weed on the black market for years before legalization. But the pattern is troubling. Our state government has made far more money than anyone in the legal weed business, and that money should buy us a better guarantee that legal weed is safe weed.