Without federal guidelines, Washington is creating its own standard for testing weed

The state Legislature wants to ensure marijuana-testing labs have uniform guidelines for testing and labeling products.

Cannabis flower at Botanica Seattle's headquarters and production facility in Seattle, Washington on Monday, March 12, 2017. (Matt Mills McKnight/Cascade Public Media)

A year before Washington legalized recreational cannabis use in 2014, Nick Mosely co-founded Confidence Analytics. It was the second accredited lab in the state for testing marijuana products, and the first to test a sample meant for market. Typically, labs like Mosely’s test cannabis to ensure that it’s free of contaminants and safe to sell. They also determine potency of key components like THC for accurate labeling. 

But Mosely says one problem plagued the lab from the beginning: Cannabis is federally illegal, so labs in Washington had no established guidelines for testing cannabis. Usually, states base guidelines off of pre-established ones created by the federal government. Washington created standards to safely test drinking water by basing them on Environmental Protection Agency standards, for example. Without federal support, the dozen labs like Redmond-based Confidence Analytics were forced to create their own standards. 

“Basically, each lab has to individually develop and validate their own method for each of the tests they’re responsible for,” he says. “They’ve done this independently, largely in a vacuum, without a lot of coordinated communication between them.” 

Mosely says that figuring out these standards is “challenging and expensive”; the extra effort required and lack of oversight can also leave space for less diligent labs to cut corners. Mosely offers an example: Theoretically, the perception that higher amounts of THC might be more attractive to customers could lead a lab to fudge results — and without established governmental standards, there would be few ways for customers to know or industry to correct the problem. 

“The information that the labs provide has a profound impact on the quality and price of the product,” he says. “There’s incentive for — there’s no better word for it — cheating.” 

But this year, the Washington state Legislature took steps toward remedying that by passing a bill that will build a standard for cannabis lab accreditation. The ability to accredit will be transferred by 2024 from the Liquor and Cannabis Board to the Department of Ecology, which will eventually create a statewide standard. To that end, the bill requires that the DOE convene a cannabis science task force to begin working on formulating these guidelines, with the first report due from team to Legislature by June 2020. 

Jessica Archer, the task force’s statewide coordination manager, says accreditation is basically “making sure that cannabis labs are following appropriate methods to get accurate results.”

“Lab accreditation is an important piece in the puzzle in making sure that when folks go out and purchase this product … they’re purchasing what it says they’re purchasing on the product label,” she says. 

Kendra Hodgson, the liquor board's cannabis examiner manager, says it’s an important step forward, especially because agencies like the DOE are better equipped with the scientific resources to monitor laboratory procedures. 

Typically, Hodgson says, states base their guidelines off of federal standards, as they do when checking the quality of other consumables, like water. But because cannabis isn’t legal federally, there isn’t a framework on which to base lab-testing standards. 

“The landscape of no federal regulation on this is really unique,” Hodgson says. “All the other states [with legal marijuana] are in that same bucket.” 

When cannabis was first legalized in Washington, Hodgson says the Liquor and Cannabis Board was the only agency specifically called out in the bill’s text for managing oversight for the new industry. Other regulatory agencies better positioned to conduct lab testing “were reluctant to touch it” without federal legalization. As a result, the board was tasked with a host of responsibilities for the marijuana market, including overseeing who tested the cannabis products and what they tested for. 

“We were breaking new ground as we did this,” she says. Now, Hodgson says that “many of these agencies have come around appropriately,” and bills like this most recent one allow the board to redistribute some of the responsibilities it initially was saddled with. 

Other states have grappled with this issue in their own ways. Sarah Sekerak, the task force’s lead chemist, says Colorado initially tasked its commerce department with lab accreditation duties after statewide legalization. But as that department had little knowledge about accreditation or cannabis labs within its network, it moved some of those responsibilities to the state Department of Public Health and Environment. 

“I think a lot of the states [are] in the same arena,” Sekerak says. “Unfortunately, that structure is kind of a patchwork of what we’re developing. We’re all kind of unique in our state structure and our oversight.” 

Confidence Analytics' Mosely says the the Legislature's bill is a step forward, but there’s still more to be desired: “There’s a lot of frustration in the cannabis community,” he says. While the bill allows DOE to determine how and which labs test cannabis products, the responsibility for what exactly is tested is still under the Liquor and Cannabis Board’s purview. Mosely says he hopes that this and proposals like “Cannabis 2.0,” which seek to envision and plan for the next few years of the legal marijuana market, will bring more oversight to cannabis-testing labs in Washington.

“We’ve been struggling with this since day one,” he says. Most lab owners he’s talked to have echoed his concerns, and at the end of the day, Mosely says simply: “The majority of labs you’d [talk to], you’d get a similar reaction. Most people want to do the right thing.” 

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About the Authors & Contributors

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira is formerly a reporter for Crosscut, where she covered Native communities, the changing region and environmental justice.